Should freedom of speech protect misinformation?

Iza TaylorOpinions Columnist

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that, “Congress shall make no law… prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech…” This means that our government can’t restrict what people say, and people can’t be punished for expressing themselves and their ideas or beliefs. That being said, should an institution uphold this law even in the face of misinformation?

College Policy states that, “Student clubs and organizations at Gustavus Adolphus College provide the campus community with activities, programs, and resources that enhance the quality of student life . . . This growth is only possible when organizations promote Gustavus’ core values of Excellence, Community, Justice, Service, and Faith. Groups and individuals live these values by: supporting members’ physical, mental, and emotional well-being . . . Protecting members from manipulation, exploitation, or degradation of any nature.”

I know that everyone is incredibly sick of hearing about everything that has to do with the chalk wars, but this event is a prime example of Gustavus allowing people to spread misinformation in an attempt to “protect people’s freedom of speech.” Does this freedom of speech include anything that someone wants to say, even if it’s false, and more importantly, should it? 

Regarding the pro-life chalking of this year, Gustavus showed that they as intuition do not care if their students spread misinformation and punished the students and staff who DO care about stopping the spread of misinformation.

By taking action against those who erased misinformation, Gustavus allowed blatantly false statements like Plan B is not reversible,” and “like hotdogs, Plan B is also classified as a group 1 carcinogen,” to stand on the sidewalk like fact. Do they want to have incoming students know that Gustavus protects fear mongering and fallacy? 

This is a slippery slope: If Gustavus allows this misinformation to be spread, how far would they allow this to extend? For instance, if students from a student organization that had permission to chalk, chalked in front of the Campus Center and spread misinformation such as: “The reason why black people are so athletic is that they have birds bones” and “slaves were in love with their masters,” do you think the students of color should just sit idly and let these harmful and blatantly false statements be spread? To have the school tell them that it’s “a matter of freedom of speech?”

Or if misinformation was being spread about rape, chalked in front of the Campus Center, would our institution uphold this as free speech? Statements like, “She was raped because she deserved it” or “it’s because she was dressed like a whore,” can be quite pervasive on campuses in toxically masculine environments. These statements do fall under free speech, but are extremely harmful and triggering and when pressed, I’m positive that Gustavus would not stand by these statements. However, these statements are arguably equally as false and were just as triggering as the misinformation spread by Gustavus Students for Life.

Gustavus should prioritize protecting their students and faculty over blanket rules like freedom of speech that don’t take into consideration the damage that misinformation can cause.

The institution we attend should prioritize protecting our integrity as a private institution for education as well as our students and faculty. The college’s stance on using freedom of speech for only a part of the population doesn’t take into consideration the damage that misinformation can cause to the rest of the college population, as well as our reputation as an intuition.

Whatever an individual’s beliefs on abortion are, that doesn’t mean that they should have the ability to spread misinformation on abortion without consequences. As an institution of higher education, Gustavus has an obligation to its students and faculty to prevent the spreading of misinformation by others at this institution. 

Now, I’m not condoning people erasing and stamping out others’ opinions or suggesting that the college screen anything someone wanted to chalk, but Gustavus should enforce a way of addressing misinformation. If we don’t stop the spreading of misinformation as an institution then the majority of people will believe that anyone can say whatever blatantly false thing they want and not face any consequences. 

Gustavus cannot deny the facts, that by upholding free speech no matter what, they could be allowing the spread of false and harmful misinformation. By doing so they are harming the community as well as their reputation as an institution.