As college students wrap up summer jobs and internships, university administrations are girding for another round of campus battles over issues of free speech, protest, and the university’s role as a setting for education and intellectual exploration. For those a step removed from today’s college students (alumni, donors, parents and pundits), these periodic flare-ups have often been taken as dismaying evidence of a generation’s intolerance toward opposing views and free speech. Students who seek to shut down speech that offends — through calls to disinvite speakers, punish offensive remarks or shout down opponents — have been dismissed as coddled, unenlightened, entitled, anti-intellectual, dogmatic and infantile.
The desire to defend free speech and broad-mindedness is admirable, but a culture of respect for open discourse and tolerance for disagreeable opinions won’t be built through insults, hand-wringing, financial pressure from irate alums or even the legal mandates now being proposed in some state legislatures. Those who are genuinely concerned about defending academic freedom and fostering intellectual diversity on campus would do well to grasp five factors that are fueling the impulse some students and professors have to try to silence speech they consider harmful.
The first factor at work is a striking lack of understanding of the basic premises that underpin free speech. Many student leaders of the recent campus protests evince only a cursory grasp of the principles enshrined in the First Amendment, much less the more complex and harder-to-articulate values of free inquiry and expression in which most American colleges and universities take pride. Whether the blame lies with the demise of university core curricula that typically included liberal philosophers such as John Milton and John Stuart Mill, the retreat from civics education in recent decades, or other factors, principles surrounding free expression, freedom of association and press freedom are poorly understood among millennials. According to a 2015 survey by the Newseum Institute , 33 percent of Americans have no idea what rights the First Amendment protects. Subsequent surveys revealed that 69 percent of students think universities should be able to restrict offensive speech or slurs, and that young people are more likely than their elders to believe that constitutional rights to religious freedom do not apply to faiths that are considered extreme or fringe.
What’s more, some students, particularly nonwhite students, report that their primary experience with such strictures has occurred when “free speech” has been asserted as a justification or excuse for racist comments. One prominent student leader from the University of Missouri, when told that punishing speech could violate the First Amendment, replied that “the First Amendment wasn’t written for me.” Her meaning was twofold: that when the Bill of Rights was written, each black American was treated as three-fifths of a person, and that her own prime exposure to the precept was its invocation to protect white students and administrators from reprisals for speech she considered offensive. It doesn’t help that, often, the only vocal advocates for free speech on campus lean toward the right. Left-leaning students may find that the clubs they belong to, professors they admire, or personalities they follow on social media are not interested in defending the right to voice unpopular views.
A second influence shaping the campus climate for speech is grounded in technological change. The old adage “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me” sounds quaint when insults, exposés, and quotes or video clips taken out of context can go viral online, leading swarms of antagonists to harass and intimidate a speaker with whom they disagree. The Internet offers a largely anonymous arena where hateful speech can easily flourish and where smears are available in perpetuity for family members or potential employers to stumble upon. The potency of social media has fueled calls to curtail and even shut down services like the now-defunct anonymous messaging app Yik Yak that seem to fuel cyberbullying. The potential for abusive online speech has made it difficult to argue that speech cannot do real damage and, correspondingly, that protections against harmful speech are unwarranted.
A third cause relates to the current movement for social equality in the United States. Our society has reformed many of the most obvious legal and structural manifestations of racism, sexism and anti-gay bias: keeping blacks from voting, firing women for getting pregnant, criminalizing gay sex and so forth. Now, the imperative to tackle more subtle and insidious forms of discrimination or exclusion — including the quietly denigrating terms and unconscious stereotypes that may reveal and entrench implicit bias — has rightly grown. Language is unavoidably implicated in this next phase of transformation. In fact, the evolution of language to reflect changing understandings of race, gender and culture is nothing new and does not simply indicate political correctness run amok. The terms “Negro,” “colored” and “Oriental” are all reminders that changing mores routinely render certain words out of bounds. As unfamiliar as some may find gender-neutral pronouns or neologisms such as Latinx, the insistence on them fits into this tradition, and the justifications behind them deserve a respectful hearing.
A fourth factor relates to our polarized and contentious political environment. The tone of political discourse had been degenerating well before Donald Trump arrived on the scene, but his campaign and election — achieved through his distinctively impudent style — have helped to normalize public speech that is intemperate, personally insulting, and derogatory toward women, the disabled, Muslims, African Americans, Jews and many other vulnerable groups.
The United States has the most protective standard for hate speech in the world, yet unwritten codes of civility and pluralism have, at least for the past few decades, largely confined overtly bigoted sentiments to the margins of society. With these views now voiced among some of Trump’s supporters and with the president himself repudiating them reluctantly, if at all, members of targeted minority groups understandably feel under siege, lacking confidence that their government will protect them. Students, meanwhile, see their campuses as places of refuge: a home where they can learn and socialize in security and relative comfort. If students witness a permissive environment for hateful speech in American society writ large, they will be more insistent in their demand for safeguards that prevent such attitudes from invading their schools.
The final development is that not all free speech standard-bearers come in peace. Conservative commentators including Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter and Richard Spencer style themselves as defenders of free speech for the purpose of building their brands and galvanizing followers, subscribers and book-buyers, but they manufacture confrontations to provoke controversy and draw headlines, rather than to elucidate ideas. This doesn’t mean they should be barred from campuses or silenced; they still have their rights. But those who rally in defense of their freedom to speak, and those who invite them to speak, should engage not only the question of their rights but also the substance of their message. Free speech cannot be turned into a partisan cause of the right: At its core, free expression is a progressive concept and a liberal value. We value the right of all to speak because we want equal rights for all.
A robust defense of free speech on campus should be an enlightened defense, one that is alert to the concerns and arguments roiling universities now. A first step for those who rightly fear for the future of free speech should be dialogue with students — historically the most impassioned defenders of campus free speech. To mobilize a new generation in that tradition will require listening to and understanding how it sees questions of race, gender and what it takes for a school to be a suitable setting for learning. Such conversations and engagement efforts are not an alternative to a staunch intellectual, political and legal defense of free speech principles. They are a necessary enabler of it.