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The erosion of free speech on campus

| Monday, November 16, 2015

Free speech is under assault at our nation’s universities. Rather than entertaining opposing ideas in order to debate them, students attack “offensive” statements and the people who make them. Last week, for example, students at Yale protested and disrupted a pro-free speech event hosted by the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program.

According to an article penned by the conference’s organizer, Yale junior Zach Young, the unrest began when a student rushed to the front of the lecture hall in the middle of a panel. Other protestors lined up outside of the lecture hall, demanding that speakers of their choice be added to the conference.

The stated reason for the protest was an off-color comment which one of the panelists, Greg Lukianoff, made about the backlash Yale Professor Erika Cristakis faced after responding to an email sent to the student body by Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee. The email discouraged costumes such as feathered headdresses, turbans, war paint or makeup that modifies skin tone, as they are forms of “cultural appropriation,” “cultural unawareness” and “insensitive choices.”

Cristakis wrote a follow-up email to the Yale community, stating that she lauds the proposed guidelines on Halloween costumes as they stem “from a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense.” Yet, she continued, quoting her husband, “Nicholas says, if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society.” Nicholas Cristakis is a Master at one of Yale’s residential colleges and gave the opening remarks at the Buckley conference.

Following his wife’s email, Cristakis was encircled by students who screamed at him and told that he “should step down” because of the advice he had provided about Halloween costumes. Students continued to protest Cristakis during his remarks at the conference, to an extent that led Lukianoff to quip that judging by the students’ vehement responses to Cristakis’s email, “you would have thought she burned down an Indian village.”

In response to this off-hand remark, protestors spit on conference attendees as they exited, calling them “traitors and racists.” Young himself was labeled a “white colonizer” as the crowd outside grew rowdier, though he had nothing to do with Lukianoff’s comment nor Cristakis’s email.

In his op-ed following the event, Young wrote, “What does it say when holding an event on free speech requires the presence of several Yale police officers? … I did not agree with everything our speakers said. … Free speech is not just about persuading others; it’s about understanding and articulating ourselves.”

Clearly, there is a disconnect here between the guarantees of the First Amendment and students’ reactions to ideas that they find offensive.

Once bastions of free expression and open debate, modern American universities now prohibit speech in a variety of ways to protect students from ideas that some have deemed “offensive,” “harmful” or “upsetting.”

A majority of universities across the nation continue to infringe upon their students’ First Amendment right to free speech, according to a 2015 survey of campus policies published by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

According to the foundation’s report, “Spotlight on Speech Codes 2015: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses,” nearly 55 percent of the 437 universities analyzed have “policies that clearly and substantially prohibit protected speech.”

Lukianoff, FIRE’s president, wrote a cover story for “The Atlantic” which warns the tide has turned so far that now some students want protection from other students’ and professors’ “scary ideas.”

“A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense,” he wrote. “This new climate is slowly being institutionalized, and is affecting what can be said in the classroom, even as a basis for discussion.”

This sanitization of our campuses from unfriendly ideas is inimical to student growth and impedes the education process. Once students leave sheltered campuses, they will confront many ideas with which they will disagree. The goal of a university is to teach students to respond with reasoned debate, rather than to silence others.

Megan McArdle, in a “Bloomberg” op-ed titled “Sheltered Students Go to College, Avoid Education,” articulately noted the detrimental effect of the erosion of free speech on campus.

“A university education is supposed to accomplish two things: expose you to a wide variety of ideas and help you navigate through them; and turn you into an adult, which is to say, someone who can cope with people, and ideas, they don’t like. If the schools abdicate both functions, then the only remaining function of an education is the credential. But how much will the credential be worth when the education behind it no longer prepares you for the real world?”

We must be prepared to confront the world of unfriendly ideas when we leave our campuses, necessarily created in a nation that espouses the value of free speech, not cower from them in fear.

Kate is a junior majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies and minoring in philosophy, political science and economics. She hails from Pittsburgh and is a proud member of Breen-Phillips Hall. Contact her at khardima@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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  • Bri O’Brien

    Have you bothered to read anything that students of color have written on this topic? I don’t know anything about your history, but I imagine this viewpoint was written from a very privileged place. When your humanity is attacked and invalidated on what I’m sure must be a daily basis, the thought of engaging in trivialities of politeness and respectability politics is just ridiculous. Obviously, the students at Yale (and a number of other Universities) did not collectively awake one morning and decide to seemingly overreact to the ‘harmless’ microaggressions they’ve been subjected to their entire lives. [Parallels to Ferguson and Black communities refusing to accept police brutality] Objecting to or opposing someone’s humanity/identity/existence is not an opinion – it’s bigotry, and it is wrong. The experience of racial discrimination (often manifests as denying people of color their humanity, basic human rights…) is not up for debate. Students reactions to racial hostility in their educational environments are not up for debate. To expect marginalized populations to politely listen while we commit microaggressions, remain apathetic to their realities, deny the existence of any sort of privilege, and dictate and regulate their lives and bodies, is ludicrous. It’s as ludicrous as it would be for me to engage in debate with someone over the existence of trees. The fact is that trees exist. The fact is that students are reacting to overwhelming discomfort and stress in a way that is entirely human. It’s reasonable. If you are so concerned about first amendment rights on university campuses, perhaps consider writing about topics in which you have some sort of credibility. There are plenty of offenses committed against our first amendment right to free speech within our campus communities. (The Bishop’s letter to the editor, the ridiculous petition to literally prevent students and faculty from speaking about planned parenthood, prohibiting queer students from using the word ‘queer’ on fliers/club names/etc.,….I can keep going) It’s a bit peculiar, actually, that despite the countless freedom of speech controversies that have happened and are happening in the local community, you’ve remained silent. But, when students of color refuse to accept any further institutional abuse and name the bigotry of white privilege for what it is, you decide to finally speak up, accusing students you’ve never met of violating a fundamental, constitutional right. Just because certain populations have the privilege to say whatever they want, doesn’t mean the people experiencing violence, trauma, distress, harassment, etc. as a direct consequence of said privileged populations’ freedom of expression have to listen to it. If anything, it’s self-preservation to refuse to accept that bigotry.

    • Bri O’Brien


      In case you wanted to educate yourself on why students’ reactions to institutional oppression across the country are not a threat to your freedom of speech.

    • Punta Venyage

      “Have you bothered to read anything that students of color have written
      on this topic? I don’t know anything about your history, but I imagine
      this viewpoint was written from a very privileged place. ”

      This thinking is exactly what’s wrong with college campuses. Points of view should be evaluated based on their own merit and logic. The moment you start accusing someone’s view as inferior because of their “privilege” or any other label you give, that makes you an intolerant bully.

      “When your humanity is attacked and invalidated on what I’m sure must be a
      daily basis, the thought of engaging in trivialities of politeness and
      respectability politics is just ridiculous”

      This sentence further shows an unwillingness to engage in a substantive discussion.

      The argument I keep seeing is
      1. I feel attacked.
      2. People who feel attacked have superior viewpoints.
      3. Therefore my viewpoint is superior

      • João Pedro Santos

        “Points of view should be evaluated based on their own merit and logic.”
        There’s no merit or logic in prejudice.

        • Punta Venyage

          Thanks for your post. That’s exactly the point. Glad you see it the same way

      • Bri O’Brien

        great logic – try reading this: http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/04/too-sensitive-not-problem/ (hint: I don’t feel attacked by institutionalized racism, because I’m white. Students of color don’t feel attacked either – they ARE attacked – but, i guess it’s too much to ask others to stop perpetuating institutionalized aggressions)

        • Punta Venyage

          I read through the article… It is another personal story of someone asserting that oppression is rampant (and you must agree with them because they are telling a story in which they are a victim. Otherwise if you disagree or ask questions, you automatically oppress them – am I understanding this correctly?) based on a personal experience based on their subjective emotional state.
          Where is the argument?
          Can you give it to me in strict syllogistic form?
          I can write to you about a time I was bullied, but that’s not an argument.

          • Bri O’Brien

            Well, if you doubt the omnipresence of racial oppression in this country, there really is no point in continuing this thread.

          • Punta Venyage

            I think this brings us back to the author’s (of this article) opening statements. If people on college campuses are less able or willing to engage in back and forth discourse on relevant issues, should that not be a concern?

            It helps no one if we back into our respective corners never engaging others with alternative viewpoints.

            I asked you legitimate questions (unanswered), seeking your honest response, and you tell me
            that if I doubt your viewpoint (which is the topic of discussion), there is no point in talking with each other.

            ‘Disagree with me on important issues and I won’t talk with you’
            is an unhelpful mindset.

        • Punta Venyage

          Sorry I didn’t address your comment directly at first, I just went to the article. Some concerns:

          *’Students of color ARE attacked’ – please elaborate on what you mean
          *Who is perpetuating “institutionalized aggressions” and what do you mean by that terminology?

  • Tedbaxter

    Outstanding article.