When the United States Constitution was written, I am almost certain the authors expected centuries of debate over its contents. I wonder, though, how they expected this discourse to unfold.
In the last month, the university has seen two controversial incidents of students exercising their First Amendment rights. The first was a banner of a President Trump cartoon with a KKK hood on his head. The banner was hung by College Democrats above Starbucks as both a form of protest and a method of recruitment. The second, just two weeks later, displayed flyers for a pro-gun speaker, hosted by Young Americans for Liberty. Both saw immediate protest, and both were torn down within the day of their debut.
The College Democrats' banner was seen as an attack on UT’s conservative community and struck emotional chords for some who lived through Jim Crowe south. The Young Americans for Liberty flyer, on the other hand, advertised their speaker, Larry Pratt, an alleged white supremacist. The display of these items and the protest against them is not troublesome. It’s part of a cycle that our society has functioned on for nearly 250 years: an unpopular opinion or idea is presented, and in response, an opposing party attempts to silence that idea. What is worrying is the hypocrisy with which the right to participate in this cycle has been used.
Partisan members are obviously harder to earn an ear for an opposing opinion; however, each side indirectly makes the claim, “Free speech to all, unless that speech opposes my own opinion.” Each incident at UT saw an incredible amount of conversation, though often this conversation was demanding repercussions for a party exercising its right for free speech. This is a dangerous road to travel down. The rights written within the Constitution are not right- and left-exclusive. The College Democrats should not be suspended for expressing a clear political opinion, just as decriers should not be unheard. The voice selected by the Young Americans for Liberty should not be silenced, just as a protestor should not be punished for acting on their opinion.
Not too long ago, some rhetoric expressed by UT organizations and students would be labeled as treasonous, and punishable to a degree with which was never deserved. Asking to discipline an activist for exercising their rights echoes this imbalanced era, one I do not want to see return. This is not exclusive to free speech; these ideas etched into our political infrastructure, freedom of religion, freedom of press, freedom of assembly, cannot be toyed with. We cannot attempt to take away one’s inalienable right, lest that same right be taken from us. I believe we can all agree, both left and right, losing these freedoms is something to protest.
--Seth Hasler, third-year media communication major