The Death of Free Speech on College Campuses

From trigger warnings to "free speech zones," the First Amendment is in peril on campus.


One of the truly delightful things about college is that it allows earnest young people to try out all sorts of ridiculous ideas without causing much lasting harm. After graduation, most will grow up and learn how to laugh at their prior selves. (The rest will become professors.) Let's hope the undergrads and grad students involved in some recent controversies become part of the former group.

First, a student legislative council at the University of California-Irvine approved (6-4) a resolution to ban the American flag from student government offices. The banners felt those should be "inclusive" spaces, while the American flag has been "flown in instances of colonialism and imperialism." And besides – get this – "freedom of speech, in a space that aims to be as inclusive as possible, can be interpreted as hate speech."

The student government's executive cabinet promptly vetoed the resolution, and the school administration called it misguided. But hundreds of academics, grad students, and undergraduates from around the country signed a letter in support of the Irvine Six, arguing that the "paraphernalia of nationalism is in fact often used to intimidate" and that "the resolution has drawn admiration nationally from much of the academic community."

Then there's Yik Yak, a social-media site popular on many campuses that allows people to post, anonymously, the sort of idiotic and insulting nonsense we've all come to expect in such anonymous fora. Yik Yak is therefore controversial, and some schools have tried to ban it. In urging her own school to do so, a Louisiana State University student contended that "free speech is constitutionally protected. Hate speech is not." But that's a false dichotomy. Hate speech is, in fact, constitutionally protected speech, as many pointed out after the University of Oklahoma expelled two members of a disgraced fraternity for participating in a racist chant.

Also recently, the student government at The George Washington University approved a measure requiring student leaders to attend LGBT sensitivity training regarding, inter alia, "using proper gender pronouns." A conservative student group, the Young America's Foundation chapter at GW, declined to go along. YAF treats everyone with respect, said representative Amanda Robbins, and doesn't need to be lectured on how to do so.

You can imagine how well that went over. The campus LGBT group, Allied in Pride, responded that YAF's "refusal to use preferred gender pronouns should be considered an act of violence." The comment calls to mind the Social Justice Kittens calendar, which features adorable kittens saying things such as "this conversation doesn't make me feel safe" and "you are jeopardizing my well-being with your violent refusal to agree."

Episodes such as these – along with the increasing demand for "trigger warnings," the campaigns to stamp out "microaggressions," and so forth – neatly illustrate the snake-swallowing-its-own-tail nature of political correctness. Its support for diversity produces demands for conformity. Its insistence on inclusivity requires it to exclude those who, say, swell with pride at the sight of Old Glory. Its efforts to make the classroom a "safe space" have made classes unsafe for those whose views deviate from the campus norm. It deploys macro-aggression – coercion and compulsion – to punish such non-aggressive acts as the peaceful withholding of consent.

The campaign against hate speech – or merely offensive speech, or just any speech the listener disagrees with – rests on a couple of different rationales. The first is that hateful speech can lead to hateful acts: Racial epithets might lead to lynching, for example. But there is no real empirical evidence to support that claim. Indeed, on today's campus any violence is more likely to be directed at the offending speaker, rather than at his intended target. (E.g, when an anti-abortion protester showed up a few days ago at the University of Oregon, he didn't change any minds, but students did snatch his poster and tear it up. "This is not part of your First Amendment right," they said.)

The second reason for protecting students from thoughts and ideas they find upsetting is to spare their tender feelings. But this effort is self-defeating. Even if it were possible to measure emotional pain, and to decide at what point such pain should (pardon the term) trigger the censor's veto, it is not possible to protect everyone's feelings the way we can protect everyone's rights.

A regime that protects everyone's free-speech rights can allow both the gay-rights advocate and the Christian fundamentalist to speak her mind. But a regime concerned with protecting people's feelings inevitably will hurt either the fundamentalist's feelings (by allowing only the gay-rights advocate to speak) or the advocate's feelings (by allowing only the fundamentalist to speak). Unless, of course, it hurts both of their feelings by letting neither of them speak. No matter what, though, it allows the censors to dismiss some people's claims for consideration as less worthy. (You sometimes get the sense that's exactly what the campus censors want.)

What's more, any regime that "privileges" feelings over rights inevitably will ignore the very real emotional pain experienced by another important group: those who cherish individual liberty and abhor censorship of any kind. There are still a few of them left – even on the modern American campus.