Marginalized Voices Need Free Speech More Than Anyone, Including on College Campuses

PEN America's recent report on the state of free speech on college campuses was a robust - yet nuanced - defense of free expression.


What, we need free speech?
Hongqi Zhang (aka Michael Zhang)/

When PEN America released its report on the state of free speech on college campuses last October, The New York Times framed it as a warning to staunch supporters of the First Amendment over "a growing perception among young people that cries of 'free speech' are too often used as a cudgel against them."

But that's a gross oversimplification of the report, as is The Times' fixation on one single line in the report's conclusion declaring the lack of a "pervasive 'crisis' for free speech on campus," despite the report's meticulous re-airing of scores of instances of legitimate expression running into official condemnation on campuses across the country.

As I write in a new column at Vox, "Freedom of speech is often misunderstood, frequently taken for granted, and always on the defensive against forces both within and outside of government." Of PEN America's report, I write that it "makes clear that colleges can acknowledge grievances, support reasonable efforts to protect the mental and physical well-being of its students, ensure students are protected from overt harassment — and also defend the right to free expression for all."

In the column, I also touch upon the report's assessment of "safe spaces," the distinctions between censorship and "disinvitations," and why comedians and other artisitc provocateurs must be allowed to fail — even if that failure means someone was offended.

On allowing comedians to experiement and sometimes miss the mark, I write:

This argument cannot be made enough. Iconic comedians such as Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, and George Carlin all deployed language and epithets that were edgy in their time and would be considered beyond-the-pale today. Yet each used the power to shock in service of fighting against war, bigotry, and the status quo. If today's sharpest comedic minds are constricted to the point they are unable to even attempt pushing boundaries, all we'll get (and deserve) is a generation of safe-as-milk karaoke comedians tussling the hair of the powerful instead of challenging them.

Of course, many attempts at subversive satire will fall flat, coming off as more tasteless than witty. But the punishment for a bad joke shouldn't be official disciplinary action or banishment from campus, which is a fate that has befallen a number of college campus comedy publications.

Read the whole column here.