The world is on fire. No, seriously.
How did colleges become ground zero for attacks on free speech? Violence has broken out on a few liberal campuses nationwide over the last few months after controversial conservatives were scheduled to speak. UC Berkeley is under fire after officials canceled and then rescheduled a lecture by conservative pundit Ann Coulter. A look at how we can have robust debate on campus and keep students safe.
- Geoffrey Stone Professor of law, University of Chicago; author of "Sex and the Constitution" and "Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime"
- Greg Lukianoff President and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education; author of "Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate"
- Angus Johnston Professor of history, the City University of New York; historian of American student activism and student life
What should free speech look like on a college campus?
Geoffrey Stone: The central mission of a college and university is to provide a forum for ideas to be expressed, to be debated, to be discussed in order to both expand knowledge, to create new ideas and to test what we think is true. To find out whether in fact what we believe to be true, really is true. For that reason, academic freedom is a central part of the mission of colleges and universities, and that means those institutions should fully respect the rights of students, faculty members, and invited speaks to express their views regardless of the extent to which they may be offensive, problematic or disturbing to others.
Greg Lukianoff: Universities should be a chaotic paradise. It should be an exciting, challenging, sometimes difficult place but never all that quiet— probably allowing enough time for people to study in the library, but that’s about it. I do think for most of my career, what we’ve been fighting are administrators like in the ’60’s who are trying to tell students, that for example, they have to limit their speech to tiny little free speech zones. We think that’s completely antithetical to universities. It’s only more recently, very recently actually in fact, that we’ve seen students protesting to get people not to speak on campus.
Angus Johnson: I think it’s crucial that free speech not just be an idea, and it not just be something that is safe and civil. There has to be space for speech that is not only rowdy, and disruptive, and aggressive and obnoxious, but also speech that is attempting to change things. To change the university itself, and to change the society at large.
On speakers being blocked on campuses
Geoffrey Stone: Some people believe, and I think that there’s some truth to it, that a percentage of students in college of this generation were raised by so-called helicopter parents and were shielded from conflict, from disagreement, and from failure and from frustration in a way their predecessors were not. They, therefore, feel less comfortable being confronted with ideas that they find offensive and disturbing.
I think another part of it is social media. Most of us grew up in a world in which we rarely encountered really hateful speech. The mainstream media would never carry that. Basically, besides a locker room conversation, or whatever, most of us did not have to confront that very often. In social media, the amount of really ugly speech has multiplied dramatically. I think that’s had a couple of effects. One effect it’s had is on students who are not the target of that kind of speech, but who themselves see it in a pervasive way, have become much more sympathetic to those classmates and colleagues of theirs who are the targets of that kind of speech. It has outraged them in a way that makes them want to protect their fellow students from this type of expression.
And also universities have become more diverse. There is a much larger percentage of students who come from different backgrounds, and I think they are being more outspoken. My guess is that 20 years, 30 years ago there were students that were minority students, gay students or women, or whatever, who did hear speech that they found disturbing and upsetting, but they decided mostly to keep quiet about it. I think now when students hear this, they feel more prepared and more justified in objecting to that speech. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, it’s just the objection should take place in form of disagreement, not disruption or censorship.
What’s wrong with telling a speaker to leave?
Greg Lukianoff: Free speech doesn’t come naturally to human beings. It’s not the natural state of humanity. For the most part, historically, when human beings disagree with other human beings, we at best ostracize them, kick them out of our community, at worst we burn them at the stake or chop off their heads. So, free speech is this internally radical idea that we should listen to or at least tolerate even the people who provoke us the most.
On colleges booking controversial speakers
Geoffrey Stone: I think that it is important to understand that the visibility that people like Anne Coulter get is because of the response. If Anne Coulter were invited to come and speak to whatever conservative student group invited her, and she simply came and gave her talk to a relatively small amount of people and nobody fussed over it, it would be of no moment. It would not be controversial, it would not dramatic, it would not have much of an impact. Ultimately, people would stop inviting her and she would stop coming. What’s counterproductive about all of this is that you make people into stories, you give them power, you make everyone read about what they have to say in the newspapers that are writing about the stories of the conflicts. It’s totally counterproductive to be doing this, you are giving them more power.
Angus Johnston: If you ignore bigots, and racists, and fascists and you don’t draw attention to their views and their speech—that they’ll just dry up and blow away was an argument that was a lot easier to make before election day 2016. I think that it is not an accident that the tactics of the students who are opposed to these bigots are escalating in the aftermath of the election. People don’t believe anymore that if you just have a dialogue things will work out okay because they are seeing a movement that is antithetical to the basic principals of democracy which is ascendant in the United States.
On trigger warnings
Angus Johnston: A call for trigger warnings is not an assault on free speech. A call for safe spaces on campuses, in some cases, is not an assault on free speech. When people use the rhetoric of free speech in the First Amendment to criticize these policy proposals that they disagree with, what they are saying is ‘free speech for me, but not for thee.’ What they are saying is, that students activists who are raising their voices, asking for, calling for, demanding change within their universities—that their free expression is not worthy of protection even rhetorically. I think that’s a big part of the reason why when you go to students today, many of today’s students, and you say the values of free speech are very important for us to uphold, one of the things students say is, “Where have you been? We’ve been out there fighting for our rights to free speech, and you haven’t had our backs on this.”
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