Column: SIU must be a guardian of freedom itself, not just free speech


Daily Egyptian file photo

By Sam Beard

Throughout the United States, far-right white nationalists are actively recruiting for genocide behind a mask of “free speech,” turning a fundamental tenant of freedom into a weapon to reduce it.

So called “free speech rallies” deteriorate into straight-up Nazi demonstrations, with speakers endorsing a “white ethno-state” and other repugnant racist wet dreams that will not be realized so long as we are alive and kicking.

This sort of speech has no place on college campuses.


Universities have, for the past 50 years or so, been vanguards of free speech. However, in contemporary America, what is at stake is not merely free speech but freedom itself.

In his latest column, which is about universities’ roles in protecting freedom of speech, SIU President Randy Dunn said, “Just because we disagree vehemently – or might even take offense – doesn’t mean someone should be disallowed from speaking.”

Having the ability to express oneself however one pleases is paramount in a society that values freedom, and I appreciate Dunn’s willingness to take a bold stance defending students’ ability to speak freely at SIU.

But if this conversation on free speech does not firstly take into account our current societal context and is detached from the material conditions in which we live, then it is simply privileged theoretical jargon.

In the United States today, far-right groups are hiding behind a guise of free speech to publicly push their violent agendas and the leftists are shutting them down by any means necessary.

The reason for such is not merely because they “take offense” to it. Rather, the speech of the far-right is a tool to encage others — a weapon to reduce the tangible freedoms of people of color, immigrants, women and LGBTQ folks.

The advance of freedom should be the main goal of the university, and I think that is partly what Dunn is getting at.


But when people are locked in a cage, their freedom comes not from speech, but from breaking out of the very structure that is caging them.

Sure, speech could be part of the process. But when we look around the United States, the place we have come to call home, it becomes strikingly obvious that dialogue alone is not enough to dismantle the powerful, institutional bars that separate us from actual freedom.  

Clearly, the SIU system already has standards as to what constitutes acceptable speech on its campuses.

Just last week a filthy, racist note was left on the door of an on-campus apartment in which black students live. The Edwardsville administration is now offering a free semester to anyone with information leading to the arrest of the perpetrator.

We have no reason to believe that the administration would allow over white supremacy at SIU.

When people come on to our campus and espouse ideas that literally call for the dismantling of other people’s freedom, that is fundamentally anti-free speech and must not be tolerated.

The Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley in 1964, which Dunn mentions in his column, was not just about free speech.

Those protesting — and disrupting the order of campus — called for higher education to return to its roots. That is, they demanded the role of the university be shifted back into a community of scholars attempting to answer the question of how society ought to be.

They were disgusted that the university aligned itself with the interests of industry and the state. They were disgusted that students were the “raw material” out of which the university machine operated and out of which nothing useful would be made.

Since then, the academy has only become further entrenched in oppressive economic and governmental forces and the age-old battle for freedom has shifted onto an increasingly dangerous playing field.

Dunn evokes the Founding Fathers and their obsession with free speech. But lest we not forget, their version of free speech applied only to white people.

People of color, many of whom were slaves, were not awarded such a right.

Centuries later, in typical American fashion, the right to free speech is still awarded along racial lines.

The cops are choking out and pepper spraying Black Lives Matter protestors every chance they get for speaking out against the racial order, while, on the other hand, literal white supremacists are allowed to march on college campuses wielding torches and chanting the violent, fascist mantra “blood and soil.”

Racism has no place on a college campus, neither does any other ideology of wickedness.

No matter how loud they squawk “FREE SPEECH,” if what they say is oppressive, if it is fundamentally anti-freedom, they will be met with resistance.

Student Trustee Sam Beard can be reached at [email protected]