Freedom of speech: Will the government support it for university students?

Freedom of speech is one of the key foundations on which our society is built, and that’s one right we ought never to take for granted. At a time when political tensions are running all-time high, economies are at the brink of collapse, and a merciless pandemic is having our freedoms curtailed, perhaps it’s best to remember how easy we’ve had it so far and the recent situation in Hong Kong is a grim reminder of the same.

Laws that challenge free speech

In a new wave of arrests that took place in Hong Kong earlier this month, 24-year-old Agnes Chow, a fearless democracy campaigner who was at the forefront of this city’s protest movement against the government last year, was sentenced to 10 months imprisonment for her role in the siege of the police headquarters. Her crime? Along with two other student protestors, Joshua Wong and Ivan Lam, she took it upon themselves to sensitize the public against the proposed extradition bill and demand the release of those arrested during the mass demonstrations.

The court’s decision comes following dozens of arrests made by the authorities in the last two months. From chanting anti-government slogans, provoking pro-democracy sentiments, participating in mass gatherings to publicly disapproving the new security measures that essentially thwarts Hong Kong’s independence and penalizes any activity that intervenes with national security, freedom of speech has taken a critical turn in Hong Kong, and for the worse, for many of these young activists.

Giving voice to the voiceless

For a majority of prisoners, re-entering into communities and labor markets remains a challenge even today. Confronting this social inequality isn’t easy as even a minor criminal record creates substantial barriers and far-reaching collateral consequences. Among other cherished benefits of free speech is witnessing a free man after three decades of imprisonment. 

Earlier this month, a group of Cornell students working on a parole project for the prisoners who cannot give grounds for their parole helped an imprisoned man secure a release after 28 years of confinement. Besides making a strong case for his release, the students also convinced the court that convicted criminals could do something beneficial with their freedom, thus deserving a second chance at life. Clearly, freedom of speech is an important right but using it for the public good makes it indispensable.

Why freedom of speech should be a priority

Today, our neighborhoods are made up of increasingly different communities, each having its own viewpoints and beliefs, living side by side. In a world as diverse as this, there are no unanimous opinions. Whether we seek to change ourselves or the world around us, there is no transformation without introducing a new idea. And new ideas are almost always met with confrontation on some level. So, how do you communicate your views to others when yours is the opposite/unpopular viewpoint?

At the very least, universities must be a safe place for students to practice beliefs, express thoughts and viewpoints, albeit out of the ordinary. Educational institutes don’t just teach students to pass exams and get jobs, but also help them grow as better individuals of tomorrow. They are also places where students advocate unrestricted freedom of speech to bring about a transformative change—be it standing up against racial discrimination, fighting for gender equality on campuses, or tackling on-campus violence and harassment. 

Student protests in universities have led to major societal change over the last century, and we simply cannot ignore the fact that if it weren’t for their persistent efforts and their belief in freedom of speech in the past and present, the world around us would be a much worse place to live. Universities cannot support the unrestricted pursuit of knowledge if one cannot think freely and thus, must ensure that free expression from all parts of the spectrum is alive and well on the campuses, even if it means supporting an unpopular yet morally right viewpoint.