College campuses unlikely battleground for free speech

Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015 

Over the last few days, my social media feed has been filled with two different events from two different parts of the country that are both raising similar concerns about free speech on college campuses. The two events have occurred at Yale University and the University of Missouri and have boiled over into the national spotlight.

To the outside observer, upset students appear like coddled, overly-sensitive children who just happen to be the physical age to attend college without the mental maturity of being ideologically and philosophically challenged. It feels like the politically-correct culture run amok as colleges scramble to create “Free Speech Zones” and “Safe Spaces” for students, so they are not challenged, debated and hurt by things they do not agree with.

There is no denying the events that transgressed at the University of Missouri, the administration’s handling of several racist incidents toward students, are significantly more severe than the discussion of appropriate Halloween costumes at Yale University. However, both have ignited debate about free speech, and the role of college campuses play in fostering debate.

The First Amendment is likely one of the most well-known constitutional amendments in the U.S., likely given its numerical advantage to the other 26 and its resonance with core U.S. principles — speech, religion and complaining.

I am an ardent support of the First Amendment. To me, its first five words are most crucial; “Congress shall make no law….” Our First Amendment right should be absolute, uninfringed upon by political correctness, government action or offense. There is a reason hate speech is protected under the First Amendment. Not only could such restrictions be used to silence unpopular or dissenting viewpoints, but there are certain caveats we must live with to enjoy the freedoms we do.

I also believe passionately Congress shall make no laws. None. Zilch. Zippo. Don’t pass go. Don’t collect $200. No law means no law. I do not see how there is any other way to read it.

Which makes the events at the University of Missouri and Yale University’s campuses upsetting, especially considering Missouri is the top journalism school in the country and now a battleground for a fundamental American right.

I remember during my time at both Washtenaw Community College and Eastern Michigan University being presented ideas, opinions and positions I did not agree with, both from fellow students and professors. There were heated arguments and more than one occasion where students left fuming. But no one during my time fought to silence those opposing views.

College campuses have been the foundation for discourse in this country, at least next to bars, where ideas from all over the spectrum can be shared, dissected, debated and challenged. But the conversations college campuses can facilitate can only happen if everyone can present their ideas openly, not that their ideas should not be judged, but students and staff should be able to share ideas without threats of bodily harm — which is not always the case.

Several think pieces, particularly in The Atlantic, have called the backlash against differing ideas the new intolerance, which is often coming from the “tolerant” left of the political spectrum. Which is not to say the right does not have similar convictions when it comes to religion, mind you.

Student activists at the University of California are pushing for policies that punish fellow students for speech that offends them, which is being veiled as a way to combat anti-Semitism. Other activists have called for the defunding of organizations and school newspapers for speech they found offensive. Freedom of expression is, and should be, absolute.

College campuses have a unique role to play in American public discourse. To play devil’s advocate, at which point, if any, should speech be limited to ensure differing ideas can be presented? I say none at all.

However, if the speech of one group can intimidate another group from withdrawing from public discourse for fear of retribution, real or imagined, does not that then dismantle the entire openness college campuses are supposed to ensure? It is a fine line many universities are tiptoeing around and seem to be caving to the loudest voices in the room — erring out of fear — instead of fostering debate between opposing views.

Offense is an easy term to toss about. And as it often is, its meaning is muddled. Anyone can find anything offensive at any moment. Yet, lives continue. My partner and I, along with our friends, often share what we find offensive in today’s world. Instead of attempting to stifle the speech of others, we try to understand the position and why it exists, because regardless of what the opinion is, each one of them counts.

And the right to hear those opinions must vehemently be upheld.

Image courtesy“U.S. Bill of Rights – National Archives and Records Administration”

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