Op-Ed: The Freedom of Speech Argument Just Won't Do

by Lavanya Hinduja

During the past few months, Washington Square Park has become a regularly inspiring sight of protest against Donald Trump and his policies. However, last Thursday night’s protest, which drew in NYPD to calm the confrontations between pro-Trump and anti-Trump supporters, was incited by the expected arrival of Gavin McInnes whom the NYU College Republicans (NYUCR) invited to give a talk.  

In defence of the decision to invite McInnes, the President of the NYUCR, Elena Hatib, said that, according to NYU Local, even though she and members don’t agree with everything McInnes says, they believe in protecting the right of free speech on campus. Vice President Xavier Malaussena added that they wanted to have the “opportunity to hear from prominent right-wingers face-to-face.”

“I think he brings up interesting conversation topics, especially for NYU and the current campus culture,” says Hatib, of a man who said in 2015 that Trump’s Muslim ban “is exactly what we need right now”, and stated in the same article that when Trump or Cruz become president “I’ll be dancing in the streets like a Muslim on 9/11” (McInnes). A vocal anti-feminist, he has most recently also criticized the Women’s March in Washington DC, and just days ago referred to Jada Pinkett Smith as that “monkey actress” (Kaufman).

Was there really no one else they could have invited, who could have represented a conservative stance with arguments and opinions based on facts rather than incendiary prejudice? By all means, the College Republicans should be able to express their thoughts and invite speakers to come and share a more conservative ideology. That is their prerogative as a student organization representing and catering to students who are Republicans. But by normalizing the association of conservatism with homophobia, sexism, racism, does it not further undermine their political ideology as Republicans?

The freedom of speech argument just doesn’t cut it. Freedom of speech is a human right, but it is also a privilege and a powerful tool. We each have a voice that we can choose to exercise, but that right must not be taken for granted and the consequences of what we say should be something we think about carefully. Undoubtedly, this is not the case in the “real” world. People more often than not blurt out things without a full understanding of what they are saying and the negative impact it may have. But as students who strive to engage in careful thought and deliberation for the achievement of a higher consciousness and understanding, the freedom of speech argument used by the NYUCR just isn’t good enough.  

There is the argument to be made that in inviting McInnes to speak the College Republicans were trying to better understand the sickness of populism and racism that is plaguing this country and try to find a cure for it. The election of Trump to president unveiled the extent to which our political views are isolated from those which oppose them. Liberals talk to liberals and conservatives talk to conservatives.

But was it really more important to ensure that McInnes — who has had no shortage of media coverage over the years — has an opportunity to speak at NYU, than to ensure that NYU maintains an environment of decency and respect for all students, many of whom have been badly hit by the recent executive orders? Even if their goal was to present an opposing view, is now really a time that they thought would be appropriate to invite McInnes and give him yet another platform on which to express his primitive views?

In a video on the NYUCR Facebook page, members talk about feeling marginalized as conservatives in a university of mostly liberals. I would have hoped that this experience would have made them understand to some small degree the need for greater inclusion in light of the Trump presidency which, having already marginalized and targeted Muslims with the travel ban, has produced overwhelming justification for anyone who is not a white American male to fear the deprivation of basic human rights. Rather than distancing themselves from the rest of NYU, the NYUCR could have sought a way to reach across the aisle within the university to understand the very real fear and risks that their fellow NYU students are challenging to cope with. Surely this would have allowed for more constructive deliberation among groups with opposing views.

What about the role of the university itself? As an educational institution that strives for the pursuit of higher learning, freedom of speech should be protected, but so should the fostering of a community of mutual respect and decency and protection against hatred and marginalization. I can understand the difficult situation universities are placed in at times where freedom of speech (article 19, Universal Declaration of Human Rights) is pitted against protection from discrimination and the incitement of discrimination (article 7, UDHR). Freedom of speech is a human right, but when it conflicts with other human rights, due consideration must be given to how much of a priority it should take. After all, McInnes has repeatedly denounced Islam and labelled Muslims as terrorists, violating article 19 of the UDHR, which includes both freedom of the expression of opinion and the freedom of religion.

The College Republicans seem to have failed to take into account the impact that inviting McInnis to speak would have. According to NYU Local, Hatib said of McInnes, “He’s also hilarious so he’s sure to be an entertaining speaker…people need to know he’s also a comedian and you can’t take everything [he says] too seriously.”

It is difficult to not take his comments seriously, particularly at a time when the Muslims which he gladly labels ‘terrorists’ are being banned from the United States, even if they have no criminal record and are green-card holders.

There needs to be greater trust within NYU, trust that everyone regardless of political affiliation and divergences in policy views will ultimately have the interest and protection of the basic rights of individuals, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, as their end goal. Trust that when it comes to the basic values that we stand for as humans, we will be on the same side in solidarity. But inviting McInnes represents the breaking of such solidarity and trust, mirroring the breaking of trust on the national level.

If nothing else I would hope the College Republicans can come to realize the very real and deep wounds that Trump has caused and how inviting McInnes only further added salt to those wounds.  But from the NYUCR’s tweet following the disrupted event, it seems far from it. “I’m disappointed that many students on this campus are so disrespectful when it comes to hearing opposing speakers.” It is a shame that NYUCR do not feel the need to be respectful and protective of their fellow NYU students, whom McInnes’ hateful ideology and Trump’s executive orders directly target.

On McInnes’ recent comments about Jada Pinkett Smith, Malaussena said: “we believe he fucked up bad unintentionally”. Unfortunately the NYUCR have walked down the same path. We can only hope that they realize it soon.


Lavanya Hinduja. Senior at NYU majoring in history, and Vice-President of the The Journal of Human Rights at NYU. 

Works Cited:

Kaufman, Scott Eric. “Vice co-founder and frequent Fox News guest Gavin McInnes refers to Jada Pinkett Smith as that ‘monkey actress.’” Salon. January 29, 2017. Web. February 2, 2017. http://www.salon.com/2016/01/29/vice_co_founder_and_fox_news_guest_gavin_mcinnes_refers_to_jada_pinkett_smith_as_that_monkey_actress/

McInnes, Gavin. “Donald Trump’s Muslim ban ‘is exactly what we need right now.’” The Rebel. December 11, 2015. Web. February 2, 2017. http://www.therebel.media/donald_trump_s_muslim_ban_what_we_need_right

Raskin, Sam. “Gavin McInnes Scheduled to Speak to NYU College Republicans.” NYU Local. February 2, 2017. Web. February 2, 2017. https://nyulocal.com/gavin-mcinnes-scheduled-to-speak-to-nyu-college-republicans-tonight-b8223b4a455e#.e0kf9wlfe

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, The United Nations. 1948.  http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/


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