Limiting Speech is a Double Edged Sword: College Protest Movements and the Transference of Power
By Camille Hunt '17 College students are afraid to voice their opinions.
The Bill of Rights grants all citizens freedom of speech, but in light of recent trends across college campuses, it seems that free speech isn’t quite so free anymore. The intolerance of diverse thought on college campuses has transformed the ‘freedom to speak’ into the ‘freedom to remain silent and avoid inducing unrest’, and the accompanying concept of the college campus as a safe space for a diverse student body has inadvertently become a paradox. Instead of encouraging and accepting a wide array of opinions, the ‘safe space’ acts as a breeding ground for intolerance against everything but homogenous thought. As author Kristen Powers has written, “Campuses should be places where students are able to make mistakes without fear of retribution. If there is no margin for error, it is impossible to receive a meaningful education.”
This hindrance of free speech has yet to become obvious at W&L, but I often find myself mentally checking myself before speaking in class. Instead of asking a question, I have on multiple occasions relinquished the opportunity to ask it for fear of broaching a topic considered politically incorrect. After each occurrence, I regret being too timid to make that comment or ask that question because in hindsight, there was nothing wrong with what I wanted to say; I was just too paranoid to say it. Powers touches on this timidity by remarking, “the politically correct university is a world of landmines, where faculty and students have no idea what innocuous comment might be seen as an offense.” Yet, even while applying immense pressure on fellow college to control speech inside the ‘safe space’ of campus, the forces demanding censorship are cheating themselves of their own power.
The Yale lecturer in early childhood education Erika Christakis best illustrated his concept. In an email she sent out to a student community, her innocent message sparked an unwarranted and explosive response. In that email, she reflected on the Halloween costume guidelines suggested by Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee that Fall. Part of her email reads:
American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition. And the censure and prohibition come from above, not from yourselves! Are we all okay with this transfer of power? Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity – in your capacity – to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?
This email, which wrapped up with a cheery “Happy Halloween,” exposes the two most pressing problems of the increasingly common collegiate habit of immediately raising defenses whenever they encounter a challenge to their own views. In return for sharing her thoughts in an informal email, Christakis and her husband Nicholas, a Yale professor, received outrageous backlash from some of Yale’s students, and as a result do not plan on returning to Yale in the future. In light of what happened at Yale, we students must ask ourselves: can we not, as young adults, handle a college professor telling us to relax a little? And who is really gaining power from these protests?
By immediately running to an authority with complaints and demands to remove anything that sparks disagreement, college students relinquish the power to mitigate the situation themselves. If our generation is so eager to stand up for itself, why are we whining for someone else must to do it for us? We must defend everyone’s right to speak freely; by demanding that administrations punish each individual that gives offense, we freely surrender our own power to that authority. Doing so might prevent a person from speaking further offenses, but in reality censorship steals the right to free speech from both sides of the argument, resulting in one absolute voice of authority. George Washington once said, “If the freedom of speech is taken away then, dumb and silent, we may be led like sheep to the slaughter.” Today’s college campus environment has added an ironic twist to Washington’s metaphor. While we all might still be sheep headed to the slaughter, the shepherds policing freedom of speech are unknowingly headed for the slaughter house as well.
That no one should dispute a person’s right to equality goes without saying. Persecutors of any group of people should not go unpunished. The drawing of a swastika in human feces at Mizzou was a horrendous offense, as were the racial slurs shouted at Mizzou senior Peyton Head and directed towards the school’s Legion of Black Collegians. These kinds of acts are unacceptable.
Unfortunately, serious offenses like those at Mizzou are undermined by ridiculous incidents happening on college campuses across the country. This November, a group of students at Amherst College made demands for “disciplinary action and mandatory ‘racial and cultural competency’ training for students behind a series of signs on campus that lamented the death of free speech,” the Washington Times reported. Do we college students truly want to be remembered for protesting free speech? Because of irrational stands like this one, will society see each future student-led cause as just another temper tantrum?
There is a difference between a legitimate injustice and an excuse to pick a fight. The intentions of our generation are valiant; we strive to support the good and fight the bad. We grew up studying historical acts of progress for social justice and were taught to stand up for what we believe in. What many of us have embarked on now, however, is a misguided and poorly substantiated conquest of a molehill when we could be conquering mountains.
In his commencement speech for Dickinson College, author Ian McEwan offered the 2015 graduates some advice. “Being offended is not to be confused with a state of grace; it’s the occasional price we all pay for living in an open society,” McEwan said. In closing, he offered these final words: “I hope you’ll use your fine liberal education to preserve for future generations the beautiful and precious but also awkward, sometimes inconvenient and even offensive culture of freedom of expression we have.” I hope that as students of W&L, we strive to preserve the privilege to speak our minds. That said, this article is an opinion piece. If it differs from your own opinion, I hope we can agree to disagree.