Free Speech Comes at a Cost

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2012. Photo by Mike Morbeck.

When the University of Chicago (UChicago) published its letter against safe spaces and “trigger warnings,” conservative commentators from Fox News, Breitbart and Glenn Beck’s The Blaze applauded the move as a victory against the destructive wave of political correctness devastating college campuses.

Assuming the letter was not an attempt to coddle alumni and donors alarmed at the protest-heavy college culture, UChicago should be praised for preserving free speech and expression. In what is now a standard message to the “entitled and protected youth,” the university bluntly told students to “grow thicker skin.”

Cue Colin Kaepernick.

The 49ers quarterback’s refusal to stand for the national anthem in protest of the unequal treatment of African-Americans drew accusations from other players, such as former teammate Alex Boone, of being disrespectful to men and women in service.

Commentators said that he was being a traitor to his country. On twitter, some fans quickly resorted to ethnic slurs. Speaking to Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman anonymously, NFL executives said that he may never play pro-football again.

I thought playing sports gave athletes calluses.

The nationalistic and deaf reaction to Kaepernick’s protest is a signal that, UChicago’s idealistic move to remove safe spaces in an effort to create an open environment where discussion can flourish, is not only foolish but impossible.

Kaepernick’s actions created a debate, but not the kind that he intended. The country has questioned his patriotism with McCarthy-like obsession while almost completely ignoring the point of his protest: the unjust treatment of African-Americans across the country.

This demonstrates a flaw in UChicago’s logic: In a fully open discussion, we will eventually regress on our own preferences and ignore other points. Therefore, a degree of protection is needed to facilitate a productive and critical conversation.

Granted, free speech does not mean freedom from consequences, just as protections do not mean complete censorship in the name of political correctness. However, the deep polarization of our cultural, social and political views presents new risks and forms of censorship.

Do Kaepernick’s actions deserve special attention because they stepped on the sanctity of a national symbol?

They shouldn’t.

There are currently no laws that mandate standing for the national anthem, and based on the precedence of other court cases, there is little chance of there being so.

NFL policy also does not require players to stand for the anthem.

Was his decision in poor taste? Perhaps.

The same was said about Black Lives Matters protesters marching during a rush hour traffic stop. Or Olympic athletes raising a black fisted glove on the medal podium at the Olympics. Or of sit-in protesters at whites-only restaurants.

If the University of Chicago is serious about challenging perspectives, it needs to accept that its own constructive and open dialogue is a mere fantasy. Free speech has always come at a cost, but without intervention, it is unaffordable.

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