Freedom of Expression and the Pursuit of Truth

Some thought provoking events occurred this week for Live Action, a club I’m a part of.

Live Action is an on campus pro-life club at UCLA. We invited the club’s original founder and now famous pro-life activist, Lila Rose, to return to her alma mater and give a talk, titled, “Abortion: Exploitation or Empowerment?”

To advertise for this event, our club did what all good Bruins do; we set up a poster on Bruin Walk. We joined the fray of frantic advertising and set up a 2 by 3 ft poster advertising our club on one side and Lila’s event on the other.

This past week, our poster for Lila’s talk was stolen. Since then, we’ve repeatedly found our club sign turned to face the bushes and have even caught someone knocking it down with a kick. I wasn’t particularly surprised.

Why? It may not be for the reason you might think. I don’t think that theft and vandalism are the MO of the average pro-choicer. I have more respect for them than that. Some of my best friends at UCLA are pro-choice, and they are wonderful, open-minded people. We argue, we disagree, and we respect each other.

This past week our sign encountered a different kind of person. Instead of welcoming dialogue, this person chose to shut dialogue down. This kind of person, unfortunately, seems to be more prevalent in universities than ever before. And the truth is, especially with a controversial topic such as abortion, there are people like this on both sides of the issue. A few weeks ago, a Live Action member attended a talk by Dr. Leana Wen, the president of Planned Parenthood, to hear what she had to say. She wrote an article about it, which we published it at in our online newsletter: The Live Action member left the talk a little discouraged. There were pro-lifers protesting the talk. While what they were doing was legal, they were aggressively shouting outside the event. Once again, instead of inviting dialogue, these protesters attempted to drown it out.

But back to what happened with Live Action. No, Live Action’s stolen poster is not the end of the world; our club did spend $41.99 on it, but it wasn’t irreplaceable. It’s a minor theft, but it touches upon important questions: What type of speech should be silenced? How should we view the exercise of free speech on a university campus? These are complex and difficult questions to answer, so for the sake of simplicity, I will focus on what happened to Live Action.

Let me be clear – I do not think that think that a right to free speech can be cited to justify saying whatever one wants. To be sure, there are a lot of opinions and modes of speech that I think ought to be suppressed in the public sphere. I will call such opinions and modes of speech “unjust”. Using this basic definition, I think we can say that people who vandalized Live Action’s sign classified the poster advertising our talk as a form of unjust speech.

To offer a response to this stance on free speech, I think we must first ask ourselves what the primary purpose of a university is. It seems to me that the purpose of a university is to seek, define, and comprehend truth. This purpose is reflected in the very motto of the University of California, which is “Fiat Lux” or “Let there be light” in English. The motto of Harvard, arguably the second most prestigious school of our nation (after UCLA of course), is literally “Truth”, or “Veritas” in Latin.

If the primary purpose of a university is to seek, define, and comprehend truth, I can think of no way better to further this purpose than to invite dialogue about the truth. The key word here is dialogue. Dialogue involves a back and forth, where a statement expressed implicitly invites a reply. There is a difference between someone shouting racial epithets and someone claiming abortion is wrong because it kills a human person. The implied intent of a racial epithet is to undermine a persons dignity and worth. On the other hand, someone claiming abortion is wrong does not imply that those who have had an abortion are evil or somehow have less dignity than those who do not.

While there are many complex and nuanced cases involving the question of free speech, I propose that the criterion I describe above can be a useful general test for whether a form of speech ought to be suppressed in the public sphere, especially on campus.

An additional aspect of the above example to be considered is that a racial epithet provides no reason for its claims. However, the person claiming abortion is wrong gives a reason for their claim, which inherently implies that the claim “abortion is wrong” is not a brute fact; it can be challenged by offering opposing reasons!

Notice I did not say that “harmful” speech ought to be suppressed. The idea of harm is very slippery; I could plausibly claim that the statement “Episode 8 of Start Wars is the best in the series” is harmful speech because of my deep devotion to the first six movies!

Whether pro-life or pro-choice, I think we can agree that there is a crisis in our country regarding abortion, we need to search for a resolution. That will only happen if we open up, put our heads together, and hash it out. It will be messy, but what better place to seek a resolution that at a university? If used right, our own voices can be incredible tools.

By: Quinn Rickard

Class of 2020

3 thoughts on “Freedom of Expression and the Pursuit of Truth

  1. This is something I have also been thinking about recently, what is the purpose of a university? As a result of several complicated factors, the classical telos of the university has been corrupted, and with it goes dialogue and free speech. Thus you are running into a more pernicious problem than you might expect: allowing voices that are contrary to the university’s “progressive” narrative is anathema to the new goal of the university. The criterion you propose for determining the boundaries of free speech would readily be twisted and abused. It is easy (and is indeed a common tactic in politics) to impute motives and therefore intent. If the determination of this intent is left to the administrators, or even the students, they would have no problem suppressing pro-life activism, among other views opposed to the typical sacrosanct positions.

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