By Nick Arbaugh, Guest Columnist
There is no sadder state of affairs than when a student must defend liberal values from the encroachment of a college that purports to be dedicated to their preservation. We students, who have come from many a background to learn, debate, and share ideas, should be committed to freely do so without fear of institutional retaliation. Yet, of course, we are not. The pervasive and destructive condemnation of free speech and free thought that permeates the academia of American society has not spared Gettysburg College. In fact, I’m sure we all have friends who have deigned certain ideas too offensive, certain topics too unapproachable, and certain speech too unconscionable. Upon making their decisions and drawing their lines, they boldly declare that the First Amendment of the United States should not apply to such sensitive topics, or rather they go horrifically further and say that the Founding Fathers erred in their rugged defense of the freedom of speech.
Ironically, the same free speech that they so condemn allows them to spread such a dangerous thought. And society is better for it. Nothing is more refreshing to the spirit of a Republic than debate about the value of liberal ideals, and nothing is more satisfying than when those who stand against freedom of speech are roundly rebuked. Such open debate allows us to challenge our preconceived notions, introduce peers to previously unheard viewpoints, and strengthen our moral character. Yet, a danger does truly exist. When bureaucracy, overzealous academia, and hypersensitivity come together to form an unholy trinity behind the scenes of everyday life, freedom of speech and debate can genuinely be threatened. This is no less true at Gettysburg College than it is at other, even public, institutions around the country. When our academic institutions have been so corrupted by the “virtues” of thought and speech policing that the Administration takes further steps to codify said “virtues”, it is our unquestionable duty as students of the liberal arts and as citizens of the Republic to object to them.
I labor to say that our Liberal Arts College has once again, in their zealous pursuit to placate the vocal few, proven that Gettysburg College is only nominally liberal. With the planned construction and publication of a statement of “institutional philosophy” by a committee of seven persons, the defilement of the values of the enlightenment lamentably continues. The real danger lies in the connotation of the statement. On the surface it will be a document that lays out the administration’s attitude toward free speech at Gettysburg, once more speciously committing the College to the apical American value outlined in our First Amendment. However, what happens if the Administration decides that this statement will serve as the sole litmus test for all speakers or speech that occurs on campus? This college would hurdle ever quicker to becoming the ideological echo chamber that the academic aristocracy and some of our more shortsighted peers desire. Groups that hold minority viewpoints, who need no introduction in this editorial, will have every viewpoint or comment they express compared to the omniscient code and found wanting. Just as similar codes have failed students in the past, it will fail them once again. The speakers this college invites will mime each other, students who hold the minority viewpoint will live in ever present fear of offending their more sensitive or activist colleagues, and Gettysburg College will no longer have resemblance to a real liberal arts institution. To those that say I am but a prophet of Armageddon I ask you: If we’ve reached the juncture where we further codify the rules for expression after every year uncomfortable ideas are aired on campus, is it really so far-fetched that we take the natural next step? Is it so hard to foresee the arduous journey towards Newspeak that this college is on finally coming to its conclusion? If not in our tenures as students, perhaps our successor’s?
While the Committee of Seven’s motives may be well-intentioned, the further mutilation of one of the most vital portions of American identity by a board with the sole intention of affirming the people-pleasing, hyper-progressive mistakes of the past is too significant an error to overlook. What level of egotism does it require on the part of the administration to claim a deeper knowledge of the values of liberal arts than the curators of those values, exempli gratia our Founding Fathers? The conceited vanity that is necessary to task a body with unilaterally declaring unanimous values for a diverse student body is that which can only be developed by an ideologically homogenous academia upper echelon. Of course, I do not mean to insult any of the individual members of the committee, for I’m familiar with a few of them and they aren’t bad people. And as of now, what little the Committee has reported to The Gettysburgian gives the appearance of being almost in favor of free speech. However, I would caution students to be wary of trusting an administration who in the past has only begrudgingly acknowledged student rights to expression, who has tightened the noose of censorship around the necks of the student body at a hastening rate, and who showed their duplicitous nature with liberal values perfectly in their comments and actions during last year’s Robert Spencer fracas. I won’t retell that saga here, those curious can make their own judgements based off of what the Gettysburgian wrote about it. That aside, the mere concept of the committee and the job it is charged with is one archetypal of the academic hubris that plagues American universities.
The argument can of course be made that since the Student Senate will likely be consulted and given input, then this document of values represents the student body. That argument would unquestionably be wrong. If the United States Congress had passed a statement of values defining acceptable speech in the United States, it would naturally be roundly criticized as un-American. This situation is no different. Furthermore, to presume that the Student Senate is a representative body of the Gettysburg community is strikingly mendacious. Notwithstanding that a fair portion of senators have been appointed rather than elected, the body is more of a bank than a representative government. Having been impeded from developing the robust character that a government requires by the heavy-handedness of the administration, the body has been content to serve as a mere distributor of funds to clubs. As a Senator myself, any claim that the rubber stamp of the Senate is a legitimate endorsement of policy is at best politically dishonest.
Furthermore, let us not forget that the protection of freedom of speech was never intended to exist at the majority’s pleasure. Rather, it is at the majority’s displeasure that the freedom of speech provides the most service. As American conservative William F. Buckley said, “We are so concerned to flatter the majority that we lose sight of how very often it is necessary, in order to preserve the freedom for the minority, let alone for the individual, to face that majority down.” If only the ideological minorities that Buckley is discussing fit into the small box that the Administration is trying to protect.
Make no mistake, I know that the Administration is not compelled to provide us with anything resembling the broad freedom of speech found in the rest of the United States. They can at this very moment publish a list of thoughts, words, and people that they think serve no educational purpose and banish them from our College and it would be entirely legal. Yet I’d argue that while they may not be legally compelled, there exists a moral compulsion. The Founding Fathers knew plainly that censoring speech was wrong. Our ancestors have for hundreds of years reached the same conclusions time and time again. And while this may be the ideological stalwart within me, I believe that we all know deep down in our hearts that curtailing freedom of speech is wrong. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin: whoever would overthrow our liberty must begin by subduing the freeness of our speech. Unfortunately, my peers, our college administration has taken upon itself the role of those who subdue. And so I implore Gettysburg College; the students, faculty, and alumni: do not let us become an island of misconstrued and authoritarian “tolerance” in an ocean of healthy debate.