Where ALL Voices Are Welcome..or at Least They Should Be

By Jim Bolt (Founder KEDG/KSSU.com, Sacramento State)

Do not glance at this article and decide TL;DR.  Read it.  Read all of it.  It’s good for you.  I promise.  Besides, you need to increase your attention span and expand your mind.  We all do!

Student media and campus organizations should always be leading the charge for free speech.  But, in recent years, these entities appear to have retreated from their duties and responsibilities on this front.

“Where All Voices Are Welcome” is a great theme for College Radio Day.  College radio has always been inclusive, at least of a certain subset of students who self-select into the largely alternative world that it is.  You don’t typically see football players and sorority girls rushing to get into college radio (communication students at USC and UCLA notwithstanding!), but they should also be welcomed.  The reality is that college radio programming reaches students and community members from all walks of life and all political persuasions.

When we say that all voices are welcome, it is implied that free speech is at the core of this inclusivity.  Free speech, by definition, includes speech that we disagree with, speech that may be deemed offensive  (which is highly subjective), and speech that will challenge our preconceived notions or educate us on various topics.  It is the very nature of free speech and open discourse that build the foundations for critical thinking skills (which, BTW, is what employers are increasingly looking for in job candidates).

Calisphere Archives from 1964

The Free Speech Movement was a 1964, UC Berkeley student movement that made national headlines.  Students protested against a ban on political speech on campus.  It was really a ban on left-leaning political speech.  But, the movement was truly about freedom of speech and expression for ALL viewpoints.  The mid-60s was a pivotal time of political upheaval, social unrest, and change.  Protests and demonstrations were happening all around the country.  The protests centered around topics such as the Vietnam war, civil rights, the feminist movement, and freedom of speech (aka the student movement).  The conservatives feared the masses, especially students.  As a result, some brutal protest crackdowns occurred.

Calisphere Archives from 1964

These students, and citizens, were protesting for more rights, not fewer.  Our college campuses used to be vibrant forums for informed debate and intellectual diversity.  Students took themselves seriously and they were passionate about exploring new ideas, learning history, and moving society forward.  They felt empowered to change the world.

The American Federation of Teachers, the second largest teacher’s labor union in the country, states on its website: “The concept of academic freedom is based on the idea that the free exchange of ideas on campus is essential to good education.”

However, it appears that some universities have veered from this concept and have quashed informed, intelligent, passionate, respectful debate, and freedom of speech.  Students protest speakers by showing up and shouting down the speaker or, in the worst cases, destroying property and resorting to violence.  Respect for the rights of opposing viewpoints (from faculty, staff, students, and speakers) has fallen by the wayside.  College radio stations and newspapers should be outraged by this situation.

In late 2022, Stanford’s IT department developed a list of over 100 words that could be considered “harmful.”  The department proposed substitutes for the “offensive” words (Orwell’s “Newspeak” from 1984 anyone?).  The effort was met with fierce backlash and Stanford has since publicly reenforced its commitment to free speech.

https://www.kron4.com/news/bay-area/american-and-you-guys-among-words-considered-harmful-by-stanford-group/

https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaeltnietzel/2023/01/08/stanford-university-backs-away-from-its-harmful-language-list/?sh=2c0bc37062df

We all have the right to be offended by anything we deem offensive.  We do not have the right to censor those who would say (or do) things we may find offensive.  If we find certain words,  or experiences, “triggering” we can remove ourselves from the situation (or stop watching, reading, or listening).  We should not be trying to force others to tiptoe around our issues.  They are OUR issues and therefore, they are OUR responsibility to work through.  We should also keep in mind that “just because you’re offended doesn’t mean you’re right.”- Ricky Gervais

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) protects free speech for both the KKK and Antifa…and everyone, no matter their views.  And no, “hate speech” is not unconstitutional.  The ACLU protects  ALL free speech….PERIOD….and that is as it should be.

CNN 2023 & 2019

“The First Amendment to the Constitution protects speech no matter how offensive its content.  Restrictions on speech by public colleges and universities amount to government censorship, in violation of the Constitution.  Such restrictions deprive students of their right to invite speech they wish to hear, debate speech with which they disagree, and protest speech they find bigoted or offensive.  An open society depends on liberal education, and the whole enterprise of liberal education is founded on the principle of free speech.” 

Channel 5, Nashville 2022

“How much we value the right of free speech is put to its severest test when the speaker is someone we disagree with most.  Speech that deeply offends our morality or is hostile to our way of life warrants the same constitutional protection as other speech because the right of free speech is indivisible: When we grant the government the power to suppress controversial ideas, we are all subject to censorship by the state.  Since its founding in 1920, the ACLU has fought for the free expression of all ideas, popular or unpopular.  Where racist, misogynist, homophobic, and transphobic speech is concerned, the ACLU believes that more speech — not less — is the answer most consistent with our constitutional values.” – Speech On Campus, ACLU, 1994

Student media used to be fearless.  It used to have teeth.  College radio, TV stations, and newspapers used to push the boundaries of language, ideas, expression, and politics.  They had provocative programming and articles that addressed racism, feminism, alternative lifestyles, conservatism, and more.  They had hard-hitting student news journalists.  Sacramento State’s first student-run radio station, KERS, broke the story that then Governor Ronald Reagan had not paid any taxes in 1970.  Student radio journalists had full press credentials and regularly went to the state capital.  They took themselves seriously and so did the public.

“KERS’s most notable moment would come on April 30, 1971, when student reporter Rosemarie King broke a bombshell story on her newscast:  that Governor Ronald Reagan had not paid any state income tax in 1970.  The revelation spread and forced Reagan to admit its veracity.  It also prompted a state tax board agent to interview King, hoping to learn more about the leak, but the journalist refused to divulge her source.  Her actions resulted in a commendation from two regions of Sigma Delta Chi.  King would later be hired by Nancy Pelosi as her top aide when she took over the California Democratic Party in 1981 and later served as the party’s executive director and as a consultant.” -Wikipedia

College radio stations were also active in the raging debate about music censorship in the mid-80s when Tipper Gore formed the Parents Music Resource Center with the “Washington Wives.”  It was a reaction to Tipper hearing her daughter listen to Prince’s Purple Rain soundtrack (specifically, the song Darling Nikki).  Tipper bought the album for her 11-year-old daughter, not knowing much about Prince.  The PMRC sparked a national debate about freedom of speech in the music industry.  Musicians from different genres (e.g., Dee Snider, Frank Zappa, and John Denver) and varied social and political viewpoints testified before congress.  They also appeared on national talk shows with Tipper and other PMRC allies.  The end result was that freedom of speech was upheld and censorship was defeated.  But, the “Parental Advisory Explicit Content” warning label was produced for record companies to voluntarily place on album and CD covers.  Of course, use of the label helped bolster sales of many albums.

At KEDG (now KSSU.com at Sacramento State), we played songs by the Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Mojo Nixon, 2 Live Crew, Public Enemy, and Ice-T, among others, to support freedom of speech and rail against the PMRC.  We talked about censorship on our shows.  We supported the Recording Industry Association of America (the musical artists’ side) and made our positions very clear.  College radio stations across the country did similarly.

Today, there is a very real double standard with respect to freedom of speech both on and off campus.  It has been this way for many years, but it has become far more pervasive in this age of political correctness, wokeness, and cancel culture.  How is it that Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion, and That Chick Angel (One Margarita) are being heralded as role models of female empowerment when their songs are just as sexually explicit as 2 Live Crew’s songs were in the 80s (2 Live Crew’s 1990 album, Banned in the U.S.A., was the first album to have the black and white PARENTAL ADVISORY EXPLICIT CONTENT label)?  Should 2 Live Crew be recognized in a similar fashion and promoted as role models?  The hypocrisy comes from fans of the aforementioned, who go out of their way to be offended by what people say to them or around them.  You do not get to pick and choose…that’s not how freedom of speech works.  Free speech is free speech.  I support all of it and I am 100% against censorship.  You should be too.

College students should openly discuss topics like abortion, socialism, communism, capitalism, gun control, LGBTQ issues, freedom of speech, conspiracy theories, etc.  They should talk about how media, on both the left and the right, intentionally misreport to influence public opinion (this is fact, not fiction, and you can research it for yourself).  They should have respectful, passionate discourse and not shut out what they do not wish to hear (this does everyone a great disservice).

Student groups and universities should invite political pundits and controversial figures from all sides like Rachel Maddow, Ezra Klein, David Pakman, Hasan Piker, Ben Shapiro, Milo Yiannopoulos, Steve Bannon and Jordan Peterson.  They should book comedians who challenge the status quo like Dave Chappelle, Bill Burr, Bill Maher, and Stephen Colbert.  They should listen to Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Eddie Murphy, Andrew Dice Clay, and Ricky Gervais.  They should engage and learn.  They should be challenged and they should get out of their comfort zones.

Hot button topics and viewpoints should be being broadcast and written about by campus media.  Music that speaks to these topics should be being played on college radio stations.

KSSU.com 2022

The FCC only has 7 banned words (George Carlin has a great standup bit on this very topic- see link below).  Broadcast stations can be fined tens of thousands of dollars for using these words on air (however, the same does not apply to streaming broadcasts).  Yes, there are levels of appropriateness and guidelines around foul or obscene language (which are also highly subjective).  College radio stations shouldn’t be more restrictive than the FCC (and if the station is streaming, then all should be fair game).  Obviously, there are university policies that must be considered.  However, if student media would return to championing free speech, they would be able to influence university policies to become as unrestricted as possible.

The film industry already has a rating system.  It should not have to put extra warnings (e.g., trigger warnings) on movies to protect “sensitive viewers.”  If you don’t like the movie, for whatever reason, turn it off.  In high school some of our required reading included classics like A Clockwork Orange, 1984, Animal Farm, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Some of these books have been banned and others challenged.  If you haven’t read them, I implore you to do so…and have conversations about them (and go watch Song of the South and Blazing Saddles while you’re at it).  Do not stand for media censorship.  Do not exist inside a safety bubble and expect others to take care of you.  Seek out controversial media, discuss it, and find out where you stand.  Through the process you will develop mental toughness and resilience (which is how you survive in the real world).

Our first amendment rights should not be taken for granted (or infringed upon).  Freedom of speech is the bedrock of our democracy (yes, we are technically a constitutional republic).  We live in a country that gives us the right to speak our minds and question authority.  We can protest police brutality, criticize the government, partake in a Satanic Temple rally, and march in pro-choice or pro-life demonstrations.  We should appreciate, and acknowledge, the fact that in some other parts of the world, we could be shot, stoned to death, or just never seen again for speaking out.

When you actually do welcome ALL voices, respect them, challenge them, and engage them, you gain a greater understanding…you expand your mind…and you grow as a person. 

And THAT, is what college is all about!

Sources:  I was in high school and college when Tipper started the PMRC, so I saw much of the controversy take place in the media.  I also read many online articles.  Special thanks to The University of California’s Calisphere, The American Federation of Teachers, the ACLU,  CNN, Forbes, Money, , KRON4 Bay Area, Stanford, The Wall Street Journal, Channel 5- Nashville, KSSU.com, and, of course, Wikipedia.

Ice-T ad for freedom of speech for The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression

Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression

https://www.thefire.org/

https://www.thefire.org/news/10-worst-colleges-free-speech-2022

Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative list of words and substitutes from Stanford’s IT department

https://s.wsj.net/public/resources/documents/stanfordlanguage.pdf

George Carlin- 7 Dirty Words Stand-up