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A spirit that is not afraid

LETTER TO THE EDITOR | Of us and speech

<p>Auburn students and faculty walk past a Pro-Life demonstration on the Auburn University Haley Concourse on March 29, 2022.</p>

Auburn students and faculty walk past a Pro-Life demonstration on the Auburn University Haley Concourse on March 29, 2022.

Free speech.

 It’s that part of the first amendment that means people can say whatever they want, with few exceptions. It means that we can say “war” if our government were to ever invade a sovereign nation under the context of a “special military operation.” It lets us call our politicians out and, at the same time, rave about debunked conspiracy theories that we still hold as true (I’m looking at you lizard people). 

It’s a mixed bag sometimes, giving people the right to say whatever they want. But it’s also one of the most powerful tools the people in a democracy have to protect themselves and ensure that a democracy remains a democracy. As citizens, it is one of our highest responsibilities.

As an American university, Auburn is, and should be, a forum of free speech. While Auburn gets things wrong, sometimes astonishingly so, this is something they get quite right. 

The “Expression and Demonstration Policy” is easy to find, as well as access, and it, in vivid prose, lays out how Auburn thinks about its space: “Auburn University students, employees, and invited guests of student organizations or employees may engage in demonstrations in generally accessible outdoor areas of the university campus without prior notice or reservation, subject
to applicable laws and other university policies.”

 To be honest, I was taken aback by how broad that is. But, Auburn sees its duty to use its space as to “facilitate robust debate and the free exchange of ideas.” 

War Eagle to that.

But it never is just that simple. While one would hope that this great opportunity to exchange ideas would be used to do so in a way that is edifying to all who come to hear, we know that is often not the case.

Whether it is volatile street preachers or massive displays in exceedingly lacking taste, poor free speech finds its way on to campus. I hesitate to say bad because, though it makes us angry, to call speech other than hate speech and threats to harm bad is to begin to decide what does and does not get said. 

After all, it is still legal. Yet, that does not mean people make comments in good faith. Their comments can cause harm and resurrect trauma. The people making those comments want less for people to hear what they are saying and more to have their voice heard. 

This can be said because yelling at people almost never convinces them of a new set of ideas. And if it does, and there is one person yelling and many believing, we have other problems.

We, as college students, have a plethora of opinions. For many, it is the first time we step out of the shadow of our parents and its exhilarating. This is great. It’s better than great. Let us have opinions in abundance! 

Let us also take notes and not become the people that yell at us when we are just trying to make it to class on time. For the most part, we, as students, are amazing at this. My mind goes to O-days. Are there tables that are a little too excited? Yes, but generally, people sit and wait for others to approach. We have signs that have questions to invite discussion. Disagreeing parties can be seated right beside one another and there are not screaming matches.

Yet, we are not guiltless. While our face-to-face interactions can be hospitable, our online interactions can be much less so. In a well written chapter on political discussion online, Jennifer Stromer-Galley and Alexis Wichowski attempt to make the case for and against online discussion. 

It aspires to be a place of “high-quality discussion,” where people can “rationally argue for one’s own opinion.” However, “even if the technology makes online discussion possible, that does not mean people will necessarily use the technology in those ways.” This is a fact that we know all too well. 

I write all of this as an encouragement. An encouragement to continue to have opinions and have them in abundance. To voice them with excitement and evidence everywhere we can.

Free speech is the torch we are to carry. But more than talking, I encourage us to listen. To one another. Maybe even to the yellers? 

If nothing else, we will learn how not to communicate and how to argue against their points. Or ignore them, that is also a power we possess. Or, set up where they are before they get there. As the policy guidebook states, “[s]uch demonstrations may not conflict with prior reservations.” 

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That is one of the beauties of public forums, it goes both ways.

Garrett Martinez is a senior studying psychology at Auburn University. 

The opinions expressed in columns and letters represent the views and opinions of their individual authors. 

These opinions do not necessarily reflect the Auburn University student body, faculty, administration or Board of Trustees.

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