Should students be able to silence a speaker whose views offend them? Protests and surveys highlight that free speech is under threat in the United States.

Protesters shout before a speaking engagement by Ben Shapiro at the University of California Berkeley in Berkeley, California, 14 September 2017. (AP Photo/Josh Edelson)

By Bernd Debusmann

Is it acceptable for students to resort to violence to silence a speaker whose views offend them? Or to drown, with chants and boos, a speech expressing repugnant thought? What about angry demonstrations to force university administrators to cancel invitations for controversial figures?

Such methods clash with the notion of the university as a bastion of free speech and open debate, a marketplace of ideas where people learn best when their beliefs are challenged.

But for a radical minority, mostly on the political left, that concept is outdated and there should be limits on the freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Adopted 226 years ago, that amendment affords expansive protections for the freedom of speech that  have no parallel in other countries.

In the United States, you can burn the national flag (an act deemed “symbolic  speech”), mock the president, praise Hitler, parade with swastika flags, insult minorities, denigrate immigrants, call for an American  version of apartheid, deny the holocaust, argue that blacks are less intelligent than whites and  demonize Muslims. The list goes on.

Freedom of speech is under threat.

Admirers of such vast freedoms see them as a mark of American exceptionalism.

But a string of protests and demonstrations at universities over the past few years and a new survey of student attitudes highlight that freedom of speech is under threat from vocal groups who think there should be limits and that expressions of hate and bigotry do not deserve constitutional protection.

According to a survey of 1,500 students of colleges across the United States, one in five said it was acceptable to use physical force to silence a speaker’s “offensive and hurtful” statements.

Just over half thought that it was OK to prevent an audience from hearing a controversial speaker “by loudly and repeatedly shouting.”

The survey was conducted by John Villasenor , a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.

Misgivings about the breadth of protection for offensive speech are not restricted to college students. Two years ago, the Pew Research Center, another Washington think tank, found that 40 percent of American millennials (those aged 18 to 34) held that the government should be able to prevent people from making statements offensive to minority groups.

The main targets of university protests have been figures on the far right of the political spectrum such as Richard Spencer, a white supremacist who advocates the creation of an “ethno-state,” peopled by white Americans to be created through “peaceful ethnic cleansing.”  How this is to be done remains unexplained.

Generation Snowflake and trigger warnings

Opposition to allowing such fringe ideas to be aired in academia has grown along with the influence over the past decade or so of what conservatives mock as “Generation Snowflake” – students so fragile and sensitive they melt when confronted with beliefs that are offensive and do not match their own world view.

To accommodate student demands, scores of colleges and universities have introduced over the past few years “trigger warnings” alerting them to course materials and books that could upset them. Some of the world’s greatest works of literature have been deemed to warrant such warnings.

The list includes Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” (incest and murder),  Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” (sexual assault), Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” (antisemitism), Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” (frequent use of the word “nigger”), Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” (colonialism, violence),  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” (domestic  abuse) and Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” (suicide).

Like many American trends, trigger warnings have traveled across the Atlantic, and British students have demanded them at various universities, including Oxford and the London School of Economics. University invitations to guest speakers often go through a vetting process by student unions intent on shielding fellow students from uncomfortable thought.

Censorship by any other name is still censorship, however, and makes a mockery of academic freedom.

But there are signs of an incipient climate change less hospitable to snowflakes.

This summer, the acceptance package that the University of Chicago sent  to incoming freshmen included a note from the dean of students, John Ellison, that heartened free speech advocates, unhappy with what they see as political correctness run amok on campuses.

“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own,” Ellison wrote.

Three cheers for the University of Chicago.

(The views are the author’s. We would welcome reaction and opposing viewpoints in the interest of civil debate.)

Bernd Debusmann

Bernd Debusmann is a former columnist for Reuters who has worked as a correspondent, bureau chief and editor in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and United States. He has reported from more than 100 countries and lived in nine. He was shot twice in the course of his work – once covering a night battle in the center of Beirut and once in an assassination attempt prompted by his reporting on Syria.


At U.S. universities, snowflakes and curbs on free speech

  1. Dear Suzy,
    Your point about the perils of conflating issues on this thorny topic is well taken. That said, I think trigger warnings, safe spaces, silencing speakers, or vetting invited guests all add up to an environment which is not conducive to the free exchange of ideas. And they don’t prepare young people to deal with the world as it is – often nasty and full of offensive speec h and thought. One can see trigger warnings as
    a courtesy to vulnerable students but one can also wonder, what kind of trauma studying , say, The Merchant of Venice could inflict.

    I think Obama had it right in a commencement speech at Rutgers in May 2016: “ I know a couple years ago, folks on this campus got upset that Condoleezza Rice was supposed to speak at a commencement. Now, I don’t think it’s a secret that I disagree with many of the foreign policies of Dr. Rice and the previous administration. But the notion that this community or the country would be better served by not hearing from a former Secretary of State, or shutting out what she had to say — I believe that’s misguided. (Applause.) I don’t think that’s how democracy works best, when we’re not even willing to listen to each other. I believe that’s misguided.
    If you disagree with somebody, bring them in — (applause) — and ask them tough questions. Hold their feet to the fire. Make them defend their positions. (Applause.) If somebody has got a bad or offensive idea, prove it wrong. Engage it. Debate it. Stand up for what you believe in. Don’t be scared to take somebody on. Don’t feel like you got to shut your ears off because you’re too fragile and somebody might offend your sensibilities. Go at them if they’re not making any sense. Use your logic and reason and words. And by doing so, you’ll strengthen your own position, and you’ll hone your arguments. And maybe you’ll learn something and realize you don’t know everything. And you may have a new understanding not only about what your opponents believe but maybe what you believe. Either way, you win. And more importantly, our democracy wins.”
    As to the high cost of security for Richard Spencer’s appearance at the University of Florida, this was a bad miscalculation of the expected number of protesters and counter-protesters rather than a breach of trust. As a public university, UF had to comply with a 1992 Supreme Court ruling on security costs (Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement).

    More thought on that subject is surely needed.

  2. Dear Bernd,
    Bobby mentioned that you had asked what I thought of this piece and I have decided to respond here rather than privately for the benefit of other readers. I completely agree that our First Amendment is exceptional and share your concerns about limits to free speech. However, I have the same discomfort with your position as I felt when I first read the letter from the UChicago dean in August 2016. The conflation of safe space concepts with limits to academic freedom is distorted. Trigger warnings do not equal censorship. The literature you mention is not being removed from syllabi. Rather, a trigger warning means that if a student has recently been a victim of something similar to what they may encounter in the reading, they will know to prepare. If I, for example, knew myself to be suffering from PTSD after having been raped, I might ask a trusted friend to sit with me while I read an assignment known to include a graphic sexual assault. The concept of campus safe spaces originated to protect LGBTQ students from harassment and violence. Providing for the physical and emotional safety of students does not inherently limit freedom of expression. Dean Ellison’s suggestion that safe spaces exist for students to “retreat from ideas and perspectives” that make them uncomfortable is absurd. A Chicago Tribune article the week his letter was distributed pointed out Ellison’s hypocrisy as a listed “ally” for existing LGBTQ Safe Spaces on the UChicago campus. The epithet “snowflake” suggests that those who appreciate safe spaces and trigger warnings are more fragile than others. I simply see the support of trigger warnings and safe spaces as conferring kindness and respect. Sadly, the dean’s quote also conflates these two concepts with the cancelling of controversial speakers, which is an entirely separate issue. I abhor any violence and noise which interferes with the presentations of invited speakers of all stripes in any location. I do not condone the disinviting of scheduled speakers in response to protest. However, it has become obvious that more forethought and more opinions need to be at the table before intentionally controversial speakers are invited, if only to mitigate the costs of such events. When Richard Spencer spoke at the University of Florida in October, it was estimated that fewer than 100 students attended in support while thousands came to protest. The university spent over $600,000 on security for the event. As a Florida taxpayer, I consider this a breach of trust by a public university.

  3. Excellent piece. As an aging liberal, I’m deeply disturbed by the left’s attempts to silence the voices of the right. Freedom of speech applies to all of us. Period.

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