Opinion: Free speech at Calvin

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On Tuesday, Nov. 7, the political science department at Calvin College debated the constitutional subject matter of free speech in the United States. More specifically, they considered whether or not there needs to be a constitutional amendment that censors some freedom of speech.

Now more than ever, free speech needs to be embraced in a college education because it supports student growth, while the term “hate speech” is becoming more of a political attack used to label and suppress people with different ideas.

This is a very important topic for three reasons: free speech has been a staple in the American republic since the First Amendment was passed; it’s such a controversial issue at colleges and our nation’s society; and free speech is important in a student’s college education because it helps a college student learn and grow.

The First Amendment states that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or the press, or the right of the people to peacefully assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Having constructive conversations in college classrooms about the subject matter taught in the course studies gives a student the opportunity to further their knowledge by learning new ideas, and it allows a student to view the topic in a new way that appeals to them more than their original view on the subject matter. By having meaningful dialogue, students learn new opinions and viewpoints on the topic.

Suppressing freedom of speech harms the growth of an individual. That is not to say that some viewpoints and speech are commonly accepted as being inappropriate, but having a difference in opinions isn’t a means to justify taking away a voice from ideals that aren’t popular. This is a sad and true reality at college campuses across the United States.

An example of this is when students decide to label a conservative-thinking speaker’s ideas as “hate speech.” It’s sad to think that in a democratic society a person can act unjustly and aggressively, using their First Amendment rights to suppress another person’s freedom of speech. However, being citizens in a democratic society, we need to come together and be able to have discussions in a constructive manner.

Along with having an important role in a general liberal arts education, freedom of speech has an important place in a Christian liberal arts education.

“I think freedom of speech is essential to a liberal arts education. The etymology of liberal tells us it has the same root as liberty, and a liberal arts education is about learning what it means to live lives worthy of free people,” stated political science professor Micah Watson.

“In a Christian liberal arts context this does not mean that liberty is license, and so we do well to exercise our liberty with civility and love for others. But we do need the room to explore different views, express and articulate ideas, and grow and learn from our mistakes as we jostle with each other in the marketplace of ideas. As Christians I think we are called to a ‘grounded openness,’ which means that we have our convictions but we aren’t angry about them, and we welcome the opportunity to work and think alongside others inside and outside our faith tradition.”

Finally, by allowing freedom of speech and constructive conversation we, as students of Calvin College, are living out our college’s mission statement: to think deeply, to act justly, and to live wholeheartedly as Christ’s agents of renewal in the world. Meaningful discussions allow students to learn and grow, allowing them  to think deeply and act justly. Even accepting different viewpoints in a respectful manner lets students act justly and live wholeheartedly.

All of these elements of free speech can make a college student well rounded and better prepared to be one of Christ’s agents of renewal in a world that is full of problems and is in need of solutions. Students can start being active in using free speech in the concept of Calvin’s mission by being an active participant in constructive, yet respectful, discussions both in and out of the classroom.