Students at the University of Missouri recently succeeded in pressuring the institution’s president and chancellor to step down. At other campuses across the country, we are witnessing a wave of similar protests. Frequently, however, the students protesting are being misrepresented and belittled in the news media as childish and coddled. More worryingly still, they are held to be attacking freedom of speech rather than exercising it to call for institutional reform — political action of the very kind this freedom aims at protecting.
What explains this apparent paradox? In a word, propaganda. The notion of freedom of speech is being co-opted by dominant social groups, distorted to serve their interests, and used to silence those who are oppressed and marginalized. All too often, when people depict others as threats to freedom of speech, what they really mean is, “Quiet!”