Just how far does the freedom of speech extend in higher education, and how much liberty in expressing potentially offensive ideas is right? The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees, amongst other things, that the government won’t restrict free speech or the press. But that doesn’t stop many schools, be they private or public, from making rules against expressing some ideas.
The Chicago Principles
Dr. Luana Maroja, a biology professor at Williams College in Massachusetts, is worried about student and administrator attitudes regarding free speech. She wanted the school to adopt the Chicago Principles, a statement that defends free expression developed and released by the University of Chicago. More than 60 schools have signed on, as have more than 100 faculty members at Williams. Her efforts failed, however. The college announced in late July that it would not adopt the Chicago Principles.
What happened? Many students – and even some educators – feel threatened by free speech. During a faculty meeting in November of 2018, about a dozen students interrupted, holding signs that said things like “free speech harms.” Some even said that the faculty was trying to kill them. One professor, according to The College Fix, threatened violence should Williams adopt the Chicago Principles. Ironically, these students and professors use the freedom of expression to behave in precisely the way they claim defenders of free speech would without restrictions in place to protect everyone.
Williams is a private college, so the First Amendment doesn’t automatically apply. However, even in public schools, the fear of free speech is becoming a mainstream idea. The Foundation for individual Rights in Education (FIRE) estimates that more than 90% of the nation’s top public colleges have some policies that restrict free speech on campus.
Safe Spaces and Trigger Warnings
Some schools treat the campus as a safe space, protecting students from hearing opinions they don’t like. Some restrict some ideas to certain areas of campus, called free speech zones. Some schools don’t allow speakers who support views that go against the prevailing opinions on campus. Others require trigger warnings to give students a heads up about any potentially upsetting they may be exposed to during class, with the understanding that they could excuse themselves from those discussions or assignments if they believe the content is harmful to their mental health.
Some say that having a sense of security encourages minority students, who might otherwise feel silenced, to participate in the discussion. Trigger warnings give students fair notice of content that might be shocking or offensive, giving them time to prepare for it or to choose not to hear it. Safe spaces on campus offer students who may have gone through trauma or who might feel marginalized a place they can comfortably talk about their experiences. This, they argue, doesn’t stifle free speech; it enhances it. Others believe that school – especially college – should be a marketplace of ideas, even if those ideas are uncomfortable for some. They argue that students should be exposed to new thoughts and choose for themselves what to believe, and they see any interference with that exposure as an attack on free speech.
Can a balance be struck between encouraging students to consider new ideas and giving them a break from what they might find offensive? Just how free should speech be on campus?