Obama Tells Howard Graduates to Respect Free Speech

I am an extremely passionate person, sometimes to my own detriment. As an undergrad studying the very contentious subject of Constitutional studies, my ability to debate heated issues during class discussions and do so in a civil manner was definitely pushed to its limits. Every time my passion would override my ability to keep my emotions securely bridled, my professor would look at me and say one word, “decorum.”

In a country philosophically centered on the sanctity of the individual, disagreements are bound to happen, as every individual has a different opinion on how the world works. Where college campuses were once viewed as havens for free thought and open discussion, they have currently turned into institutions where only “acceptable” speech is permitted.

Countless incidences have occurred recently, all pointing towards a shift in principle over free speech and expression in America. Many students would rather feel intellectually, “safe” on campus, than have their worldview challenged by opposing thoughts.

As such, calls for “safe spaces” on campus and limitations to free speech and expression have been promoted by the youth of this country, a demographic that has traditionally been the greatest defenders of civil liberties.

As differences in opinion have erupted into chaos on campuses all over the country, guest speakers have been “booed” off stage or accosted during school-sponsored events. This weekend, during a commencement speech at Howard University, President Obama told the youth of this country to essentially, “knock it off” when it comes to disruptive efforts to censor guest speakers.

“Don’t do that, no matter how ridiculous you might find the things that come out of their mouths,” Obama said, “because, as my grandmother used to tell me, every time a fool speaks, they are just advertising their own ignorance. Let them talk,” Obama said to the crowd. “If you don’t, you just make them a victim,” he added.

Continuing on this theme, President Obama stressed the importance of listening to opposing points of view in order to learn from those different perspectives. Even if you disagree with what is being said, gaining a sense of what the other side believes will either serve to help you learn something you didn’t know, or reinforce your stance on an issue.

“If they’re wrong, rebut them, teach them, beat them on the battlefield of ideas,” Obama said.

Being extremely passionate and unwavering in your beliefs is not a bad thing, but if your opinions are used as a tool of censorship against those who think differently, there is a huge problem.

This country was founded on disagreements. Our Founders argued tirelessly in the heat of summer. Clad in wigs and thick clothing, they were brought to the brink of their civility, but in the end, “decorum” prevailed and the greatest republic that has ever existed was formed.

If you value your opinions enough to want them to succeed against all other ideas and perspectives, you must present them in a way that conveys dedication and passion, but also shows respect for the opposition’s right to express themselves.

By allowing our emotions to override our sense of reason, we are letting the opposition win. Though I rarely find myself agreeing with President Obama, his advice to the graduating students at Howard University, is advice that every single Millennial would benefit from listening to. It seems like after all these years, I am finally learning my lesson on, “decorum.”

Author Brittany Hunter

Brittany Hunter is a Staff Contributor at Generation Opportunity.

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