Is free speech under fire on campus?

Author:Breger, Sarah
Position::Cover story



Over the past few months, a series of student protests has erupted across the United States on campuses such as Amherst, Dartmouth, Ithaca, the University of Missouri and Yale. While the specific spark of each protest has differed, their substance has been of like mind: Students are contending that their administrations have neglected an obligation to address bigotry, discrimination and intolerance, and specifically racism. Pressured to respond to such concerns, some universities have taken steps to discourage or proscribe "hateful" or "hurtful" speech. In other cases, faculty and administrators have been forced out, speakers have been disinvited and buildings have been renamed. Further complicating matters are questions about the First Amendment rights of religious minorities and new tensions between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students and organizations. For some, today's is an era of intellectual intolerance and so-called political correctness, of illiberal censorship of opposing or unpopular opinion. Others paint a different picture, one in which marginalized voices that have been silenced for too long are finally being heard and accommodated. So: Is free speech threatened on college campuses? Moment asks an array of scholars, university administrators and students to weigh in. This print symposium is an expanded version of a March 2016 live symposium produced in partnership with the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute.


Freedom of speech: The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees, among other rights, the right to free expression or "speech" without undue government restrictions, and applies to public university campuses. Various Supreme Court rulings have sought to clarify what constitutes such speech--the subject of debate to this day--including Tinker v. Des Moines, when the Court declared that students "do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate."

Microaggression: Psychiatrist and Harvard University professor Chester M. Pierce coined "microaggression" in the 1970s to describe the "subtle, cumulative mini-assault" that he said constitutes "the substance of today's racism." It has entered the national conversation to mean brief, subtle verbal or nonverbal exchanges--often unintended--that send denigrating messages because of the recipient's group membership. These can include assuming that Jews are good with money or calling a person of color "articulate," implying that he or she is exceptional.

Political correctness (P.C.): Political correctness, a concept that went mainstream in the 1990s after the publication of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, pejoratively characterizes language, behavior or policy that goes to supposedly extreme lengths not to offend, exclude or discriminate. Critics bemoan and mock its alleged limitations on speech or debate, while its accused practitioners call it a diversionary tactic--a misleading code term for espousing progressive values or opposing injustice.

Trigger warning: Trigger warnings originated on the Internet, where communities labeled content that dealt with potentially traumatic subjects (such as war, sexual assault and child abuse), particularly to forewarn sufferers of anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. Many college professors have adopted the practice of applying trigger warnings to class material.

White privilege: "Privilege" in this context refers to the benefits bestowed upon individuals who resemble those who have historically held positions of power. Wellesley College women's studies scholar Peggy McIntosh popularized the concept in the 1980s with a list of 46 white privileges ("I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group"). Beneficiaries of privilege--which can come from wealth, heterosexuality, being able-bodied, etc.--don't ask for but nonetheless are said to enjoy its advantages, large and small.

Safe space: The women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s used the tenu "safe space" to describe "consciousness-raising" groups that shared political ideals. Today, it is often used to describe designated campus areas or communities in which discussions and interactions--often centered around such topics as sexism or racism--are required to be respectful, nonjudgmental and nonthreatening.

Title IX: Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any education program or activity that receives federal funding. Under Title IX, discrimination on the basis of sex can include sexual harassment, rape and sexual assault.


When university administrators say they expect "the fullest sanctions" for pro-Trump and anti-illegal-alien sidewalk chalking at a university (University of California, San Diego) that expressly permits sidewalk chalking, you know that free speech is under threat at university campuses. When the University of Minnesota's Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action office investigates a flyer that depicts the Charlie Hebdo Mohammed "Je Suis Charlie" cover in promoting a faculty-organized panel about the Charlie Hebdo massacre--and then calls on the dean to publicly disavow the flyer as "hurtful"--you know that free speech is under threat at university campuses. When people call for "safe spaces" at universities and mean safety not from violence but from offensive ideas, you know that free speech is under threat at university campuses.

The premise of the modern American university is that no one should be protected from ideas. Some ideas may be wrong, but we can't tell that they're wrong unless we are free to debate them. And we can't have confidence that our beliefs are right unless we know that they are always subject to criticism and must continue to withstand that criticism. That is just as true of ideas about religion, race, sex, sexual orientation, disability and other identity attributes as it is of ideas about science and morality more broadly.

And as Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wisely noted, "the freedoms of speech, press, petition and assembly guaranteed by the First Amendment must be accorded to the ideas we hate or sooner or later they will be denied to the ideas we cherish." Power given to government officials to suppress some offensive ideas quickly grows to cover other ideas as well. And, to turn to Justice Robert Jackson, "There is no mysticism in the American concept of the State or of the nature or origin of its authority. We set up government by consent of the governed, and the Bill of Rights denies those in power any legal opportunity to coerce that consent." That is true of public debate generally; it should be true for debate at universities as well.

Eugene Volokh is a professor of law at UCIA, where he teaches free speech law, religious freedom law and church-state relations law, among other topics. He is the founder and co-author of the legal blog "The Volokh Conspiracy."


The question that I continue to grapple with is: Whose free speech are we talking about? My research is largely on people of color on predominantly white campuses around the country. For more than a decade now, Eve repeatedly heard people of color and women say that they can't give voice to the racism, sexism, homophobia and other...

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