Op-Ed: Why Do College Students Want Freedom from Speech?

By Holland, Robert | Deseret News (Salt Lake City), October 6, 2017 | Go to article overview

Op-Ed: Why Do College Students Want Freedom from Speech?


Holland, Robert, Deseret News (Salt Lake City)


Responding to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ announcement the Trump administration will begin siding with plaintiffs in challenging public universities that fail to uphold freedom of speech, a high-ranking official of a higher-education lobbying organization protested that the attorney general is zeroing in on a few isolated, atypical controversies within academe.

“I worry that there is a narrative that is being suggested — that is a false narrative — that campuses are not places that respect free speech and the rights of people to engage with and listen to speakers,” Peter McDonough, vice president and general counsel of the American Council on Higher Education, told The Chronicle of Higher Education.

It is remarkable that a higher-ed representative could take such a “don’t worry, be happy” stance after not just the shout-downs and violent shutdowns of speakers at institutions from Berkeley to Middlebury to Claremont McKenna in the recent past, but the proliferation of restrictive speech codes, minuscule free-speech zones, Star Chamber entities called bias response teams, and ideologically motivated speaker disinvitations within American higher education. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has found that at least 92 percent of U.S. colleges have speech codes that threaten First Amendment rights.

While McDonough paints a picture Pollyannas may find comforting to contemplate, a new Brookings Institution survey of undergraduates at U.S. four-year colleges and universities shows just how alarming lack of respect for the First Amendment actually is among today’s students.

Students chose between two options for their ideal college:

Option 1: create a positive learning environment for all students by prohibiting certain speech or expression of viewpoints that are offensive or biased against certain groups of people.

Option 2: create an open learning environment where students are exposed to all types of speech and viewpoints, even if it means allowing speech that is offensive or biased against certain groups of people.

A majority (53 percent) chose the first option. These students want to live their college years in a cocoon protected from ideas that challenge the conventional wisdom. Rock no boats; shelter me, oh alma mater!

Even more distressing was the extent of physical censorship these students favored to protect their tender sensibilities. The survey asked students to ponder their public university’s inviting a “very controversial speaker” who is “known for making offensive and hurtful statements,” and then a student group loudly and persistently shouting down this invitee so the audience could not hear the speech at all. …

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