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What is the Value of Free Speech on College Campuses?

September 8, 2016

Has Political Correctness Gone Too Far?

 

Universities are learning communities that should value and protect students’ First Amendment right to exercise free speech. As students return to their colleges and universities for the new academic year, it is a good time to reflect on the recent free speech movement on campuses that some would say stifles free speech. A troubling development on many campuses is that designated spaces are being used to direct the speech in ways that put the interests of one group over another.

What are ‘Safe Places’?

 

Designated areas on campuses called “safe places” are gathering areas for individuals to share their experiences. The term has evolved from its earliest uses 50 years ago that referred to forums where women’s rights issues were discussed and later violence and harassment against the LGBT community.  Now it applies to any group that feels marginalized.

 

Safe places are seen as antithetical to free speech by critics because it restricts access for all, but it doesn’t mean the opposing side can’t do the same. Moreover, the exercise of free speech in any form enhances students’ abilities to analyze complex ideas that affect them personally and reflect on how they can be better understood in society.

 

Some claim universities that provide a safe area for such discussions are coddling college students and overprotecting these groups. Christina Paxson, the President of Brown University, recently wrote that “universities [should] protect the rights of members of their communities to express a full range of ideas, however controversial,” because it protects the ability of universities to fulfill their core mission of advancing knowledge.”

 

Other opponents of using safe places claim the practice smacks of “political correctness.” Colleges have morphed into institutions of higher learning that are ultra-sensitive to offending one group and can shut down the free speech rights of those with an opposing point of view. This is antithetical to opening a dialogue with students on issues that may be uncomfortable and impedes a free marketplace of ideas. The fact is free speech advocates can simultaneously promote a free expression of ideas while also advocating for their own point of view.

 

What is Microaggression?

 

The term “microaggressions” are front and center on many university campuses. It refers to everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults which communicate hostile, derogatory or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.

 

The University of California issued faculty guidelines in 2015 called “Recognizing Microaggressions and the Message They Send.” Among the specific microaggressions given as potentially offensive practices is the use of phrases such as “America is the land of opportunity.” The objection stems from a collective cultural experience which may not be true for members of marginalized groups and deny the existence of racism and sexism. I have to wonder what’s next? Will expressions such as “America the beautiful” be censored because of long-standing blight in some inner cities?

 

Some colleges have given in to the demands of one group of student protesters over another, such as at Princeton University where students had demanded the name Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs should be changed because of Wilson’s vehement and well-known racism. The University did not change the name but did remove a mural depicting Wilson’s life in a dining hall.

 

An ongoing concern is whether students should be able to dictate to a university who will be the commencement speaker. Back in May 2014, former Secretary of State and current Stanford University professor, Condoleezza Rice, withdrew as the invited commencement speaker at Rutgers University after students and professors protested the invitation because of her role in the Iraq war.

 

The most bizarre case may have occurred back in April 2015 when officials at the University of California at Santa Barbara were forced to apologize when students complained about serving Mexican food at a sci-fi themed event because they found it offensive after relating science fiction to space aliens, and then relating space aliens to illegal aliens, and then tying it all together by insisting that Mexican food was a symbol for illegal immigrants from Mexico.

 

Free speech hasn’t been stifled on all university campuses. Much to the credit of the University of California at Berkeley, in December 2014 it did not cave in to student protests over inviting Bill Maher to speak at its commencement. A small group of students had objected to his views on intolerance in the Islamic religion and that it promotes violence against others. The University recognized the objections were based solely on Maher’s opinions and beliefs, which are Constitutionally protected.

 

Gender Neutral Pronouns

 

The use of gender neutral pronouns has become the most recent cause célèbre on college campuses. Scripps College, a private all-women’s college in southern California, give students ten pronoun options to choose from in their student portal accounts including “Per, Per/Pers, Perself” and “Ze, Zi, and Zirself.”

 

The most perplexing example of political correctness run amok happened last academic year at North Carolina State University where it defended a lecturers’ right to dock students’ grades for using “he” or “him” to refer to both men and women – as well as using the word “mankind” instead of “humankind.”

 

The answer to offensive speech is not shutting down all speech. The answer to differing points of view is not favoring one over the other. Divergent perspectives are like cultural diversity in that it makes America stronger and shows respect for all people including those we disagree with.

 

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on September 8, 2016. Dr. Mintz is Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: www.workplaceethicsadvice.com.

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