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Is Free Speech on College Campuses Still a Concern?

The Role of the First Amendment

Free speech on college campuses has been under attack during the past several years. The alleged offenses seem to have declined this past academic year. Does that mean limitations on free speech on college campuses is no longer of concern? The answer is ‘yes’ and ‘no.’

The First Amendment to the Constitution protects speech no matter how offensive its content. The first words say it all: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

According to the ACLU, “restrictions on speech by public colleges and universities amount to government censorship, in violation of the Constitution. Such restrictions deprive students of their right to invite speech they wish to hear, debate speech with which they disagree, and protest speech they find bigoted or offensive. An open society depends on liberal education, and the whole enterprise of liberal education is founded on the principle of free speech.”

The kinds of restrictions that are supported by students are targeted harassment or threats, or that creates a pervasively hostile environment for affected students. The ACLU points out that offensive or bigoted speech does not rise to that level and determining when conduct crosses that line is a legal question that requires examination on a case-by-case basis.

Most people agree, however, that hate speech does cross the line. There may be, however, some disagreement whether speech that hurts another person's feelings should be deemed unacceptable. It's hard for me to buy into this as our feelings are hurt frequently. Just think about your encounters on social media. Hurtful speech

During the past few years we learned that some high-profile speakers were disinvited to campus because of protests by some students who were adamantly opposed to their message. Some were walked out on in protest or forced to back out as speakers. This includes former Secretary of State and Stanford University professor Condoleezza Rice who withdraw as the invited commencement speaker because of student backlash.

Others disinvited and/or walked out on include conservative firebrands Milo Yiannopoulos, Anne Coulter and Dinesh D’Souza. It’s worth noting that the President of Columbia University, Lee C. Bollinger, addressed free speech on college campuses in a piece written for The Atlantic on June 12, 2019 defending the idea that controversial points of view by speakers on both the left and right have been routinely expressed on college campuses.

Bollinger states that Columbia University did invite controversial speakers in the 2018-2019 academic years including conservative radio talk-show host and author Dennis Prager, Fox News legal commentator Alan Dershowitz, and the 2016 Republican Party presidential candidate Herman Cain. D’Souza commented on the civility of the discussion of his ideas that he encountered during his visit to Columbia. But, is Columbia the outlier? It’s not clear one way or the other.

Two recent surveys of students on the free expression of campus speech indicate that students support the concept. In 2016,  a study of college students by Gallup and the Knight Foundation and the Newseum Institute found that they believed First Amendment freedoms were secure, and they generally preferred that campuses be open environments that encourage a wide range of expression. Indeed, 78 percent favor campuses where offensive and biased speech is permitted. However, students did support restrictions on certain types of speech, such as hate speech.

In 2017, Gallup, the Knight Foundation and the American Council on Education updated the 2016 results to update key trends in the survey. Two important results of the survey of 3,014 U.S. college students are as follows.

Students value both free expression and inclusion. It’s worth noting that students feel diversity and inclusion are more important than free speech. It would seem, however, that diversity and inclusion are values that should include free speech.

Students now think the climate on their campus prevents people from speaking their mind because others may take offense. More students now (61%) than in 2016 (54%) agree that the climate on their campus hinders free speech.

A second survey by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) indicates that while students surveyed (87%) feel comfortable sharing ideas and opinions in their college classrooms, more than half (54%) state they have stopped themselves from sharing an idea or opinion in class, almost one-third of whom (30%) have self-censored in class because they thought their words might be considered offensive to their peers. Slightly less (29%) have self-censored on campus outside of class because they thought their ideas might be politically incorrect.

The results of these surveys seem somewhat contradictory. A large majority of students support free speech but a significant minority are afraid to share their views when they might be deemed as being outside the mainstream – politically incorrect.

It’s difficult to conclude things are getting better on college campuses with respect to the free expression of all speech – left and right and everything in the middle. Countervailing forces still seem to chill such speech especially when it is offensive to one group or another.

I believe all forms of speech should be welcome on college campuses so long as it doesn’t incite harmful acts and violence towards others. We have to train our students to deal with offensive comments in a productive way through dialogue. Let’s face it, offensive speech surrounds us on many levels not the least of which is in the media, at a variety of political events and, most important, in our social networking activities.

The bottom line is discussions about civility need to take place on college campuses. It should be part of all liberal arts courses so all students get exposed to what it means to disagree with someone else without being disagreeable.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on July 18, 2019. Visit Steve’s website and sign up for his newsletter. Follow him on Facebook and “Like” his page.

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