Free Speech, Safe Spaces, and National Pride

Matthew is a senior at the University of Chicago, where he is the President of the College Republicans. A political science major, he’s passionate about the need for all of us to challenge ourselves to learn more about the other side. It’s worth noting that the other member of the College Republicans I spoke with said he thought Matt is the best citizen he knows, because Matthew genuinely and generously engages with people who disagree with him everyday.

He’s already politically engaged:

I’m one of the Ward Committee Men in Chicago. I’ve done a lot of civically engaged things, in terms of working with the Fifth Ward community to help improve trash collection and guaranteeing that there’s a good election system. Before I was elected, there weren’t Republican ballot judge at the primaries, and so I worked to make sure that for the general election that every polling place had an election judge that was not a Democrat. At Ward meetings, each committee man represents the votes of the number of people who voted for him, so I take my decisions very seriously when representing the people who elected me.

Why he disagrees with safe spaces:

Dean Ellison, of University of Chicago, said he doesn’t support intellectual safe spaces. That’s something that people who disagreed with the university didn’t talk about. I agree with the Dean. I oppose safe spaces like the one at Brown University when a speaker came to campus, and the campus set up a safe space with play dough, coloring books, and videos of frolicking puppies. Those kinds of safe spaces treat college students like we’re completely inept and can’t hear anything that challenges our world view.

That’s not what the University of Chicago is about. That’s not what any university should be about. Just a few days ago, Ben Shapiro spoke at Berkeley, and the university offered counseling services to students who didn’t even attend the event, students who were just disturbed by his presence on campus. The problem with that is if we treat every speaker as a trauma, it undermines our ability to help people with mental health challenges.

If you don’t like a speaker, don’t go to it. Or go challenge it. But the response should not be to go to coloring books.

His thoughts on President Schapiro’s defense of safe-spaces:

I hope that President Schapiro does make sure there are no intellectual safe spaces. Last year, at Northwestern, students shut down a speaker coming to a class that they weren’t even in. The speaker one was an ICE agent, and the professor, who was very left-wing, invited him to come at the end of a weeks long unit on immigration. After the students shut it down, the Northwestern student government voted to protect these students. This was the most significant college event last year in my mind. This wasn’t some outside speaker. This was a liberal professor, in a class on dismantling power structures. These students weren’t even in the class. It’s a horrible attack on academic freedom.

The College Republicans work to engage others, regardless of viewpoint:

We don’t just sit back and complain about this problem (of free speech on campus). Every year, we invite people from across the ideological spectrum to come and meet with us. Last year, we met with Bruce Reid, who has worked closely with Vice President Biden, to hear about his trajectory. Steve Greenhouse, the labor correspondent for the New York Times, spoke with us and had a very different perspective on the past, present, and future of unions from our members. That was a very interesting discussion.

Maybe the best, though, was having DeRay Mckesson, one of the Black Lives Matter leaders, at one of our meetings. He talked about his political experiences, and one of the coolest things was when we were talking about welfare reform, we agreed with him a lot more than a lot of us thought we would. We talked about how welfare was built, what it’s impact is, and potential remedy for it.

We also have Democrats attend our meetings regularly. We have a meeting called “Ask Me Anything,” and we had students come who admitted to hating Republicans or not knowing one, and they asked us questions. It was really great.

His political role model engaged people on both sides:

The biggest person who inspired me was Richard Lugar, senator from Indiana. He lost the 2012 primary to Richard Mourdock. The biggest knock Murdoch had on him was that he was “too bipartisan.” He began a presidential run in 1996, and quit, because he was too nice to go on the attack. He stood up for what he believes in. But he also is a model for American democracy at its best. He was willing to work with anyone. He created a nuclear non-proliferation plan with a democrat that led to the disarmament of thousands of nukes.

How we can all improve as citizens:

It is important to research issues before deciding what the solution is. There’s a lot of nuance lost all the time in thirty-second tirades on TV. People are quick to assume the best or the worst based on who the speaker is. The most important thing as a citizen is to be open to discourse. We shouldn’t close ourselves off to people based on where they’re from, what they believe, or what they look like. You might never cross the party line, but you shouldn’t ignore something based on where it comes from. You want to get to a place where you think your ideas are better, not just good enough because you don’t read the other side’s perspective.

We have to be proactive in crossing the divide. We’re not doing a very good job of that, in large part because people are breaking up geographically more and more.

Since he’s very enthusiastic about free speech, I asked him about the relationship between guns and free speech:

The guns and speech question is hard. The First Amendment protects speech that isn’t explicitly speech (like art). Some people say it’s not clear where the First Amendment draws the line. But that’s not true. It couldn’t be a brighter line. Once speech escalates into a situation with direct threats/incitement to violence, that’s when it’s not protected. Guns don’t necessarily make speech reach that point. I understand why the ACLU would say if you’re a white supremacist bringing guns to a huge rally, that’s a problem. That’s a much bigger problem than someone on the side of the road holding a gun. Having a gun is also different from having your hand on the gun. It’s a case-by-case issue.

What we should know about our history and our present:

We should be well versed with the Constitution and its interpretation from key cases over the years. That includes the Civil War, and the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments and how we literally fought a war to guarantee those rights.

We should also be proud of our history. We are not a perfect country, but no country is. We have been the greatest force for good in the history of the world. World War II is in this category. Learning the global dimensions of that, and the isolationist argument, is important. We need to know an isolationist America is bad for the world. We should see what America can do to stop the worst ideologies in the world. We need to know why we didn’t get involved at first, and why there was a huge human cost for that.

In the ideal world, we should know the political composition are. We should know who are our state representatives and local reps. are. As a local rep., I can say, local politicians do way more than people realize! The mayor has way more impact on your day-to-day life than the President. People don’t vote in these elections, and it’s a huge a problem.

What it means to be an American:

We won the lottery, to here by choice or birth. That does carry some responsibility for us as people. Optimism and individualism are key. Polls suggest we might not be as optimistic right now about the future. But it’s always important for us to look to the future, while understanding the past. As a country, we know people look to us as an example. People want to come here. Almost everyone’s family came here at some point, for religious freedom, economic freedom. The reasons my family came here are still true today. We are the place to be for religious opportunity, economic opportunity, creative opportunity. When America turns inward, the vacuum is always filled, and is filled by someone worse. What makes us unique is the amazing group of people in America.

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