Opinion | Free speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences

Although many people weaponize the first amendment, receiving consequences for speaking unprofessionally or offensively is not a threat to free speech.


Emily Wangen

The UI College of Dentistry and Dental Clinics building is seen on July 17, 2019.

Yassie Buchanan, Opinions Columnist

Social conservative movements have weaponized the First Amendment for a long time, and now we are seeing it happen at the University of Iowa College of Dentistry. This weaponization and lack of action has come at the cost of the well-being of minority students and undermines the real instances of oppression of free speech.

As previously reported by The Daily Iowan, a statement was made by the College of Dentistry condemning an executive order by former President Trump against federally funded institutions holding DEI training in October 2020. Following the statement, Michael Brase — a self-identified conservative student in the college — sparked a thread of emails from people questioning the statement condemning the executive order.

Brase wasn’t the only person to weigh in on the conversation. A staff member commented  on the order saying she felt underrepresented as a conservative Christian and unable to express her opinions. One professor went so far as to condemn the Black Lives Matter movement.

It is not uncommon for those with right-wing beliefs to feel their speech is under attack. Trump himself has made claims to his free speech being hindered by the media.

In the case of Brase, a disciplinary hearing was meant to be held to discuss the unprofessional behavior. The hearing was meant to give the student an opportunity to explain this behavior then proceed with whatever action they saw fit. After Brase contacted Iowa Republican legislators seeking support regarding concerns with his First Amendment rights, the hearing was canceled.

The reason for any disciplinary action would have been on the basis of unprofessional behavior, not speech. Using free speech in this context as a claim of oppression not only blurs the lines of the First Amendment but undermines real instances of oppression of free speech.

Throughout history, issues revolving around the First Amendment mostly had to do with protecting the speech of the underrepresented. Today, free speech cases have disproportionately benefited the rhetoric of conservatives in the majority.

The Supreme Court  has taken on a larger number of First Amendment cases. The win rate for these conservative free speech cases is significantly higher than it has been in the past. According to the study, the win rate for conservative speech is nearly 50 percent higher than that of liberal speech.

Clearly, the free speech of conservatives is under no threat. However, free speech is continuously brought up when it comes to people feeling their conservative viewpoints are under attack. It’s important to distinguish between receiving consequences for inappropriate behavior and being oppressed on the basis of free speech.

Following the thread of emails, many students of color felt unsafe and targeted by the discourse in the emails. One student sought counseling after feeling unsafe because of the comments of her peers.

The case at the dental college is another example of how the First Amendment has been warped and, in this case, used to evade consequences of unprofessional behavior.

More recently, the dean of the College of Dentistry apologized to the student, saying he did not want any students feeling like their opinions were unwelcome or unsupported. However, the dean has not addressed the many students that have come forward feeling fearful about the racist comments that were made.

Ironically, right next to the students and staff that felt their viewpoints were oppressed under a more “liberal agenda,” there were students who felt unsafe at their peers’ disregard for social-justice issues that affect them. Diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts should not be partisan issues in the first place.

These staff members and students continue to freely voice their conservative opinions, but the underrepresented groups around them are the real ones to suffer the emotional consequences.

Conservatives must stop weaponizing free speech as a feeble attempt at asserting themselves as an oppressed group. Brase claimed his free speech was impinged on when in reality he was being approached on the basis of his unprofessional behavior — there is a difference between being oppressed and facing the consequences of your actions.

Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.