Who Is Worse for Free Speech: Campus Snowflakes or Donald Trump?

(Reuters photo: Carlo Allegri)
Trump's desire to jail Americans for flag-burning suggests he may not be a free-speech champion.

No doubt, a lot of people voted for Donald Trump because they wanted to put a stop to the “safe space” culture that’s running rampant on college campuses across the country — I’m just not so sure he’s the man to do it. 

First of all, let me say that I completely understand the desire to want to stop the influence of the so-called snowflakes from spreading. It’s gotten ridiculous, and there are new examples of just how ridiculous it is coming out every single day. For example, just recently, Tufts University’s student government rejected a free-speech measure that would have eliminated the college’s restrictions on speech, including “hurtful words,” “bias-fueled jokes,” and “comments on an individual’s body or appearance” on the grounds that allowing these things could be “unsafe.” Obviously, these are insane restrictions — taken literally, these rules would mean someone wouldn’t even have the right to come up to me and tell me that he likes my sweater without risking a violation. 

What’s more, I can also understand why people might automatically see Donald Trump as the guy we can count on to fight against our culture becoming one that’s subject to the kind of restrictions that are in place at Tuft’s. After all, Trump is the guy who said, “I think the big problem that this country has is being politically correct,” and who talked about that “big problem” nearly every chance he got. 

But ask yourself: When Donald Trump is also flippantly tweeting about taking people’s citizenship away for burning flags, can we really be so sure? 

If, as his tweet suggests, Trump really does want to enact the equivalent of “speech codes” for the country — and really does want to send people to jail for violating them — then is he really on the side of free speech at all? Many people complain that liberals’ so-called safe spaces only claim to be “tolerant” and “accepting,” when really they are only ”tolerant” and “accepting” of views like their own. As soon as someone says something they disagree with, then it’s hate speech and must be punished. Isn’t Trump doing the same thing? Free speech for me and for those who support me — even when it’s offensive —  but speech that I deem hateful must be punished. 

And it isn’t just the flag thing, either. What about what happened to Mike Pence at Hamilton? No, Trump didn’t demand legal action be taken against the cast, but his claim that the theater is supposed to be a “safe space” for public officials in this country represents a gross misunderstanding of what this country is supposed to be about. The theater might be that in North Korea, but in this country, not so much.  

I understand that burning a flag is an act of protest against the country rather than the kind of person-or-group-specific insults that free-speech codes at colleges advise against, but isn’t the principle the same? As soon as we have “Right to free speech, except for ___,” then we don’t have free speech anymore. When we have a government deciding what is and is not worthy of falling into that “___” category, then we have a government controlling our speech. 

#related#Now, we don’t know what Donald Trump’s arguments are against flag-burning specifically. After all, the medium he selected to float a nation-altering policy change gave him only 140 characters or less to explain it. But presumably, it probably has something to do with how flag-burning is perhaps the ultimate form of (nonviolent) disrespect to our country — a level of disrespect that, in his mind, is apparently grounds for serving a year in jail or losing your citizenship. But here’s the thing: Assuming that that’s the case, and disrespect to our country is grounds for legal consequences, then what might Trump see as appropriate penalties for smaller forms of nonviolent disrespect? On a scale like that, would, say, my being critical of him right now be a transgression worthy of at least the equivalent of a traffic ticket? It’s a truly terrifying slope to think about. 

There’s no doubt that burning an American flag is offensive. I would never do it, and I think that it’s a terrible thing to do. But wanting to send people to jail or remove their citizenship for exercising their constitutional right to free speech? Well, that may be an even greater offense to what this country stands for than flag-burning itself. 


The Latest