Don’t mock or ignore students’ lack of support for free speech. Teach them

Apr 3, 2016

Photo credit: Dave Getzschman/For the Times

By Howard Gillman and Erwin Chemerinsky

Teaching a freshman seminar on freedom of speech on college campuses has made us aware of the urgent need to educate the current generation of students about the importance of the 1st Amendment. From the beginning of our course, we were surprised by the often unanimous willingness of our students to support efforts to restrict and punish a wide range of expression. Not a single student in the class saw any constitutional problem with requiring professors to give “trigger warnings” before teaching potentially disturbing material.

Surveys across the country confirm that our students are not unique. According to the William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale, 72% of students support disciplinary action against “any student or faculty member on campus who uses language that is considered racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise offensive.” Too few students grasp that one person’s offense can be another’s expression of truth to power.

Young people’s support for freedom of speech has waned in part because of their admirable desire to create an educational environment where all can thrive. Our students or their friends have experienced the psychological harms of hateful speech or bullying more than they have experienced the social harms of censorship or the punishment of dissent.

Simply telling students to toughen up isn’t persuasive. Moreover, they were born long after the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam War protests that gave their elders direct experience with the need for free expression. It is their education that’s lacking.

History demonstrates that when we give officials broad powers to restrict or punish speech considered hateful, offensive or demeaning, that power is inevitably abused. Unpopular speakers are victimized, and legitimate opinion silenced. Over the course of U.S. history, officials censored or punished those whose speech they disliked: abolitionists, labor activists, religious minorities, communists and socialists, cultural critics, gays and lesbians, demonstrators and protesters of all stripes.

The students were surprised to learn that people went to prison for speech criticizing the draft during World War I, or for teaching or espousing communism during the 1920s and 1930s and in the McCarthy era. The effect of the 1st Amendment’s strong protections for “dangerous” and “offensive” speech allowed oppressed and marginalized groups to challenge indecency laws, segregation, patriarchy and declarations of war.

Another key lesson was that censoring intolerant or offensive speech can be all but impossible to manage without threatening legitimate debate. There are those who will take offense at anti-Zionist speech and at pro-Zionist speech, at the rhetoric of Black Lives Matter and the demands of racial equality, at advocacy for LGBT rights and for religious beliefs that run counter to those rights. Our students came to realize that there was no way to create a “safe space” on campuses where students could be free from one set of offenses without engaging in massive censorship, and perhaps creating another kind of offense.

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8 comments on “Don’t mock or ignore students’ lack of support for free speech. Teach them

  • It is a matter of looking at the big picture, the consequences of rampant political correctness.
    People are too focussed on their own immediate hurt feelings. They don’t see that as the necessary cost you must pay for the right to express your truth.

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  • While I understand the historic purpose and usefulness of the US 1st Amendment – I cannot understand why the right to scream, “#### off home you filthy ####!” into someone’s face is a benefit to an academic environment.

    The article acts as if there can be no middle ground between complete freedom and omnipresent repression. This seems an unfounded claim to me. Excessive freedom is abused by groups of violent hateful people to drive out ‘undesirables’ just as often as its used by authorities to lock people up.

    I also feel there is an important distinction between opposing ‘dangerous ideas’ and opposing ‘hate speech’. In the same way there’s freedom of movement to go where you please, and freedom of movement to try and move your fist or foot through a space currently occupied by someone’s face.

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  • Besides (and I trot this out whenever I can) it is better to train our kids not to take offense before we train them not to give it.

    A country with a predominance of folk not taking offense will outperform one where the predominance merely don’t give offense. It is both more tolerant of error from guests, kids, the inexperienced, uneducated, mentally ill, psychologically scarred, aspie, and it is better informed.

    It is also in the opposite direction to that of burgeoning safe spaces, and the suppression of bad behaviour rather than properly confronting its roots.

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  • I see there is a bit of a debate in Germany, but it seems that where Islamic figureheads are involved, police protection is required:-
    A German TV comic, Jan Boehmermann, has been placed under police protection after he read an obscene poem about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

    A police spokesman said a patrol car had been parked in front of his house.

    Mr Erdogan has filed a criminal complaint against the satirist in a case that has prompted a debate in Germany over freedom of speech.

    German prosecutors are investigating whether he broke a law against insulting foreign leaders.

    Public broadcaster ZDF announced earlier on Tuesday that his weekly satire programme would not go ahead this week because of the “vast amount of media reporting and the resulting focus on the programme and its presenter”.

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  • I have a wall of offense in my classroom. An entire wall has been decorated with close to a thousand images, memes, sayings, quotes, student art, curse words, and even slam poetry (including Shane Koyczan who I think is the slam poet all others are compared to). I have a wall painted in blackboard paint that is routinely tagged by the kids who improve a grade the most. A fluid, free form cornucopia of expression.
    Then, I have a folder of “butthurt reports”. Anyone (I mean anyone — including the Principal) who takes offense to anything on the wall has the opportunity to fill out a form that documents and details the reason for their offense. But there is NO circumstance that allows anyone to take down the posts of another. You may take your own down; no one else’s.
    “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for those we despise, we do not believe in it at all.”
    Noam Chomsky
    We do not have to agree on a single thing to be kind to one another.

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