According to a certain line of thinking, today’s college students oppose the very idea of free speech. Those who hold to this premise cite plenty of examples: A Princeton professor canceled his seminar on hateful symbolism after he spoke the n-word in class, triggering a student walk-out. At the University of California-Berkeley students protested vociferously when right-leaning commentator Milo Yiannopoulos came to campus. An appearance by Charles Murray, a theorist associated with controversial ideas on race, provoked an uproar at Middlebury College, ending with an assault on Murray and a professor.
But most students are not out to silence ideological opponents. Since November, the organization I run, PEN America, a nonprofit devoted to defending freedom of speech, has convened four symposia on campus speech at the sites of some of the most pitched controversies: Berkeley, Middlebury, the University of Maryland and the University of Virginia. These conversations have underscored that what can appear to be a crisis over campus speech is signifcantly rooted in issues of race and inclusion.
Efforts to quash speech are not the crux of the battle most of these students are waging. While speech-suppressing tactics are deeply misguided, they don’t negate the legitimacy of other demands. To instill a commitment to free speech among a diverse generation of students, we must focus on the essence of their grievances and explain why free speech protections are essential, rather than inimical, to those goals.
A rising population of students of color and their allies bring new expectations about openness and equality on campus. Changing demographics — the Pew Research Center reports that Hispanic enrollment more than tripled between 1996 and 2012, and black enrollment grew by 72 percent — have yielded a critical mass of students more attuned to egalitarianism and insistent on being heard.
Concerns about the state of campus speech are valid: At times, the quest for inclusion inspires attempts to bar or punish speech perceived to impugn particular groups. A Knight Foundation survey published in March found an increasing share of college students — 61 percent (up from 54 percent in 2016) — saying they don’t think they can speak their minds on campus. Faced with speakers they consider abhorrent, undergrads can be quick to take matters into their own hands, using shouts, jeers and stomps to drown out offenders. Critiques of campus activism often proceed from the misguided assumption that the most vocal students are coddled products of privilege, too sheltered by their parents to be able to tolerate uncomfortable ideas.
But on many campuses, the students at the center of heated controversies are not the helicopter-parented offspring of the upper middle class. At Maryland, the University of Missouri and elsewhere, protests have been led by students of color, including leaders who do not come from particularly comfortable backgrounds. Their concerns have centered on eradicating persistent manifestations of discrimination that have outlasted decades of efforts at integration: slurs (at the University of Maryland, students have repeatedly pressed the administration to address examples of overt racism, including the n-word); racist incidents (such as the hanging of nooses and bananas at American University); stereotypes (including those reflected in the disproportionate representation of students of color and international students in the academic disciplinary system); social segregation (at Stanford, students have noted that clubs and fraternities reinforce racial separation); and entrenched norms shaped by and for the privileged. They are asking their universities to reorient their classrooms and communities to serve students of all backgrounds equally.
These students’ demands entwine with larger debates over the stubborn legacy of race in our society: Many of today’s college students have experienced persistent racial and school segregation that can leave them unprepared to forge diverse friendships in college. They run up against barriers to entry and promotion in a professoriate that shapes course catalogues, reading lists and mentoring opportunities. They live with the myriad ways discriminatory attitudes can unconsciously manifest in dorms, encounters with campus security and even at Starbucks. And they grapple with socio-economic disparities that can shut students out of elite campus subcultures and career on-ramps like unpaid internships.
The post-election environment has only fueled these fires. President Trump’s ascent has let loose once-taboo speech, including white-supremacist ideology, anti-Muslim sentiment, anti-Semitism and nakedly anti-immigrant attitudes. Unleashed bigotry challenges a university’s legal obligation to provide equal educational opportunities to students regardless of background. It is no coincidence that some of the most prominent crusaders for free speech on campus are those who don the mantle of the First Amendment to purvey sentiments hostile to minorities.
Yes, conservative speakers are sometimes tarred unfairly as prejudiced, fascists or white supremacists. But concerns about racism on campus are real. Between 2016 and 2017, white-supremacist activity on U.S. campuses tripled, according to the Anti-Defamation League, which recorded 147 incidents last fall. The death of protester Heather Heyer in Charlottesville is well known; less so is that of Richard Collins, a black Bowie State University senior killed last spring while visiting the University of Maryland in what prosecutors call a hate crime. Whereas some dismiss talk of “safe spaces” as a wrongheaded quest for psychological comfort, it’s clear that physical safety, an unquestionably legitimate demand by students of their universities, is also at stake. Of course students feel menaced when white supremacists march and chant in their college town or hang nooses on campus trees.
Psychologists and sociologists have documented that pervasive slurs and disparagement can compromise mental health, emotional well-being and academic performance. While critics of offensive speech are wrong to equate verbal attacks with physical violence, language can still cause harm. And the burden of addressing these crises too often falls on students of color, who are called to explain why particular words are offensive, to rebut stereotypes and to educate others on why they feel vulnerable.
This is not to say that we should indulge appeals to restrict speech on campus or that they can be excused as cries for help. Campus protesters sometimes conflate truly threatening speech with ideas that, while discomforting, objectionable or even insulting to some, are precisely the sort of thing that ought to be aired and debated. There are important differences between white-supremacist rallies and debates over affirmative action or the Israel-Palestine conflict.
But while youthful inexperience and overreach can make college-age protesters easy to caricature, casting student campaigners for racial justice as entrenched enemies of free speech is not only a distortion but also a risk. When students hear the First Amendment invoked time and again to safeguard the speech of those determined to provoke and offend, it is not hard to understand why some question whether free speech principles are relevant to their own priorities or struggles.
Compounding the problem, research reveals that most college students have little background in the First Amendment and cannot accurately identify what range of speech it protects. Basic education for all about these precepts, the rationale behind them and the role they have played in historic struggles for civil rights can help bridge those gaps. Students should also be educated in the dangers of empowering governments to police speech — and how such efforts have historically been exploited to the detriment of social-justice causes.
To persuasively counter demands to quash expression, university leaders need to play a dual role: as hosts of forums for the widest range of ideas and as speakers in their own right. It is not enough for college presidents challenged by hate-mongers to throw up their hands and cry “First Amendment!” as if, after that affirmation, the Constitution then renders them mute. Faced with a planned speech by white-supremacist provocateur Richard Spencer last fall, the University of Florida cleverly allowed him to come to campus but encouraged a loud counter-campaign centered on the hashtag #GatorsNotHaters. Spencer spoke for 90 minutes before a half-empty room, his message overwhelmed by the mass of protesters outside who repudiated him. Offering a model for other schools, Florida deprived Spencer of what was presumably a main goal: the moral victory of claiming that he was wrongfully silenced.
Intensified efforts to foster an inclusive campus must not enshrine political correctness or enforce orthodoxies that leave conservative students feeling perpetually accused. Ideological ostracization of conservatives can fuel provocations — such as speaking invitations for firebrands — that play into the unease of minority students. A commitment to inclusion and equality on campus must encompass not just race, religion, gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status, sexual identity and disability but also political opinion and belief.
Our pitched battles over diversity, inclusion and free speech on campus — a microcosm of our polarized discourse on these issues in society — are not insoluble. The next generation is not dominated by so-called snowflakes or cowards, but rather by young adults determined to advance their notions of equality and justice, just as previous generations have done. One of the greatest, and most often overlooked, dangers to free speech on campus is that it will come to be associated exclusively with those who aim to offend. If that’s the case, we could create a generation of Americans alienated from the principle of free speech, who believe that the protections of the First Amendment don’t belong to them. By working to understand these students’ life experiences, concerns and demands — and by demonstrating how those causes are advanced by robust protections for freedom of speech — we can help ensure that U.S. universities are open to all peoples and to all ideas.
CORRECTION: This article originally misspelled Milo Yiannopoulos’s last name.