In the Free Speech Wars, College Students need a New Champion

It seems every day brings yet another story about college students behaving badly – be it a violent protest, like the ones that took place across the country in 2017 at places like UC BerkeleyMiddlebury College, and New York University – or some outrageous politically-correct behavior foisted upon fellow classmates, such as Evergreen College’s “Day of Absence” where white students and faculty were asked to leave campus for the day to discuss and reflect on issues of race and privilege.

There are anecdotes that seem better suited to The Onion than the Ivy League: consider the account by a professor from Harvard Law School who said students regularly ask to avoid “triggering” content, such as merely teaching rape law and using the word “violate”; or the case of the Northwestern University professor whose scholarly writings on sexual politics led to not one, but two protracted Title IX investigations by her own university.

Sadly, this trend appears to be worsening, not improving. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) maintains a “disinvitation database” that tracks attempts by students and faculty to disinvite speakers both from graduation ceremonies as well as throughout the year; as you might guess, the numbers have been increasing over the years.

Of course, these are only the publicized incidents that gain notice; of greater concern are the silent pressures that students face day-to-day. According to 2016 studies by both FIRE and the Knight Foundation, more than half of all college students have stopped themselves from sharing an idea or opinion in class, and almost a third have self-censored in class because they thought their words might be considered offensive to their peers.

It’s not a surprise that students feel this way. In recent years, university administrations have adopted various policies such as “free speech zones,” “safe spaces,” and mandatory “trigger warnings.” In addition, many schools have vaguely-worded speech codes that punish speech that is “unwelcome,” “demeaning,” “discriminatory,” or creates an “intimidating,” “hostile,” or “offensive” environment. Because it is impossible to predict how people will feel, students refrain from speaking at all. The message is clear, and it is chilling: students with unconventional ideas should shut up and keep their opinions to themselves … or else.


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