Just how far does the freedom of speech go in college, and how much freedom in expressing possibly offensive ideas is right? The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution promises that the government won’t get in the way of free speech. But many schools still make rules against sharing some ideas.
The Chicago Principles
Dr. Luana Maroja, who teaches biology at Williams College in Massachusetts, is worried about free speech. She wanted the school to adopt the Chicago Principles. The University of Chicago developed and released this statement in defense of free speech. More than 60 colleges follow the Chicago Principles, and Dr. Maroja got more than 100 faculty members at Williams to agree that they should. But Williams College announced in late July that it would not adopt the Chicago Principles.
What happened? Many students and teachers think free speech is dangerous. Some students interrupted a faculty meeting in November 2018, holding signs that said things like “free speech harms.” The even said that the faculty who liked the Chicago Principles wanted to kill them. The College Fix reported that one professor even threatened violence should the school adopt the statement. These students and teachers use the freedom of expression to behave in exactly the way they say defenders of free speech would without rules to protect everyone.
Williams is a private college, so the First Amendment doesn’t stop them from making rules about speech. But the fear of free speech is becoming more common even at public schools. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) says that more than 90% of the nation’s public colleges have some rules for speech on campus.
Some schools treat the campus as a safe space and try to protect students from hearing opinions they don’t like. Some only let people share certain ideas in special free speech zones. Some schools don’t let speakers who don’t have the right beliefs talk to students. Others want professors to give students trigger warnings to let them know they might see or hear something offensive or shocking in class.
Some say that feeling safe encourages some students who might otherwise feel silenced to participate in discussion. They believe that trigger warnings and safe spaces improve free speech, not stop it. Others think college is a place where people should be exposed to new ideas and decide for themselves what to believe, even if they might not like it.
Can a balance be found between encouraging students to think about new ideas for themselves and giving them a break from what they might find shocking or offensive? Just how free should speech be on campus?