What Happened to Free Speech on College Campuses?

Sarah Hemphill

Universities used to be bastions of free speech and the flow of ideas. Students passionately fought for their right to not be silenced in regards to the most controversial of issues. Now, it seems as if the opposite is occurring: students in general are in favor of limiting speech and establishing safe spaces on campuses, and many universities are actively discouraging free speech through their policies. This isn’t progressive, this is regressive, and isn’t suitable at the university level where students are supposed to be challenged by different views and ideas to foster critical thinking.

In 1964, the Free Speech Movement was founded at the University of California, Berkeley. Students protested a ban on on-campus political activities, such as campaigning, gathering signatures, and handing out literature. They also demanded that their rights to free speech and academic freedom be recognized. Thousands of students had witnessed Jack Weinberg being arrested for passing out civil rights literature on campus. As they yelled “let him go,” the Free Speech Movement was ignited. That December, a massive sit-in led to the arrest of 800 students. Students were pushed down the stairs, beat and kicked by police (Gonzales). Several sit-ins and protests followed, with thousands of students from different political backgrounds, Socialists to Republicans, participating with the unified goal of forever changing student activism on college campuses. Thanks to these passionate students, the movement was victorious and the university consequently ended all bans on political activity and free speech.

Today, many colleges and universities are once again barring students from exercising free speech rights through policies that require permission to use them, in forms such as tabling or distribution of literature on campus. Sometimes those rights are limited to “free speech zones,” which are designated areas on campuses where students don’t need permission to exercise their First Amendment. For example, students at the University of Delaware were stopped by campus police when rolling an inflated free-speech ball around campus. A Young Americans for Liberty leader at Fairmont was confronted by security when he was attempting to speak with other students about his beliefs. A man at Clemson University was stopped from praying on campus because he was outside of the free-speech zone. Additionally, administrators at Blinn College demanded that a student get special permission to advocate for self-defense (Maloney). Universities also have policies which ban certain types of speech, such as speech that can be discriminatory or offensive. However, these policies are often vague in what exactly falls under those categories. Anything a person might say can be taken as offensive by some, therefore making it dangerous for students to say anything controversial or of bad taste in the slightest.

Unfortunately, it seems that most college students aren’t exactly opposed to these anti-speech policies. In fact, “a large percentage of millennials want the government to restrict certain types of speech that is protected by the First Amendment. A whopping 40 percent of millennials think the government should be able to punish speech that is offensive to certain groups” (Barrows). Why have students, who once largely supported their right to speak about the most controversial topics, changed their minds? A new culture of being hypersensitive to anything deemed offensive, whether it be a joke taken out of context: clothing, hair, a costume a student likes to wear that may not be from their own culture, or views that are not part of the mainstream, is to blame for students allowing these policies to take place. Anti-free speech policies have further inhibited students from hearing points of view that are different from their own. They have helped make most students more sensitive, feeling “triggered” when they simply hear something they don’t like or agree with. They have made students oppose free speech, who demand further protections and safe spaces from words or behaviors they feel are offensive. Specifically, “the buzzwords of the antiwar students of the ’60s – free speech, free love, and down with the ‘Establishment’ – have been replaced by phrases that make contemporary college life sound like a war zone. Safe spaces. Trigger warnings. Cultural appropriation” (Milligan).

Don’t believe it? Then why did a feminist professor’s essay about campus hypersensitivity lead Northwestern students to try to get the university punished? Why are the University of California faculty told that statements such as “America is the land of opportunity” and “I believe the most qualified person should get the job” are traumatizing microaggressions? Why are students at college complaining about having to read classic novels with themes that “trigger” them, such as the violence and misogyny in The Great Gatsby? Why are Harvard law students asking professors not to teach laws regarding sexual violence and to not even use the word “violate” (The San Diego Union-Tribune Editorial Board)? This is all strong evidence of a culture in which students expect to be coddled and protected, instead of exposed to different ideas or views, or even things that may at times make them uncomfortable, which used to be an important part of education and personal growth at the university level.

Although this is a trend amongst most universities across the nation, not all are conforming to the banning of speech and the establishment of safe spaces and trigger warnings. John Ellison, dean of students at The University of Chicago, wrote to members of the class of 2020 that went against college political correctness: “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” (Perez-Pena). Even President Obama does not condone any of this supposedly “progressive” movement. In the commencement speech he recently gave at Howard University, he condemned students trying to get universities to disinvite speakers with different views, saying not to shut people out no matter how much they may disagree with them. President Obama commented, “there’s been a trend around the country of trying to get colleges to disinvite speakers with a different point of view, or disrupt a politician’s rally. Don’t do that, no matter how ridiculous or offensive you might find the things that come out of their mouths” (Perez-Pena).

Because of anti-speech policies, safe spaces, and trigger warnings, students are not prepared for the rigors and realities of the real world. The real world doesn’t give students a safe space or protections against things they find offensive. Universities are supposed to foster an environment that accepts the diversity of ideas and views, so that students can become more aware, not more sensitive, to different beliefs and can understand why others hold them. Thus, students should be able to engage in respectful discussion about controversial topics, instead of thinking they have the right to silence others if they don’t agree with them. Students need to be able to question their own beliefs as well. All of this can sometimes lead to discomfort or anger, but in the end it fosters critical thinking and understanding.

Universities, especially public, taxpayer-funded ones, should have no right to limit free speech and discourage ways of thinking that are not in line with the “status quo.” They also should not be establishing safe spaces and trigger warnings to keep students “safe” from ideas that offend them. Doing so not only deprives students of the well-rounded education they deserve, but it also lets the future leaders of our nation think that it is acceptable to censor speech they don’t like and ultimately infringe on the Constitution and core values our country was founded on. Continuing this way is not only a threat to the First Amendment, but democracy itself.


Works Cited
Barrows, Katie. “Pew Report: Of All Age Groups, Millennials Most Favor Speech Restrictions.” FIRE, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, 25 Nov. 2015, www.thefire.org/pew-report-of-all-age-groups-millenials-most-favor-speech-restrictions/.

Gonzales, Richard. “Berkeley’s Fight For Free Speech Fired Up Student Protest Movement.” NPR, NPR, 5 Oct. 2014, www.npr.org/2014/10/05/353849567/when-political-speech-was-banned-at-berkeley.

Maloney, Cliff Jr. “Colleges Have No Right to Limit Students’ Free Speech.” Time, Time, 13 Oct. 2016, www.time.com/4530197/college-free-speech-zone/.
Milligan, Susan. “From Megaphones to Muzzles.” US News, US News, 15 Nov. 2015, www.usnews.com/news/the-report/articles/2015/11/25/from-megaphones-to-muzzles-free-speech-safe-spaces-and-college-campuses.

Perez-Pena, Richard. “University of Chicago Strikes Back Against Campus Political Correctness.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 27 Aug. 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/08/27/us/university-of-chicago-strikes-back-against-campus-political-correctness.html.

The San Diego Union-Tribune Editorial Board. “Why ‘Safe Spaces’ Are Dangerous on College Campuses.” San Diego Union Tribune, San Diego Union Tribune, 1 Sept. 2016, www.sandiegouniontribune.com/opinion/editorials/sdut-obama-college-campuses-and-free-speech-2016sep01-story.html.