It’s ironic. Historically, colleges and universities were founded on freedom of speech and the right to pursue knowledge — two fundamental human liberties. Across the country today, though, many student activists (or, as some say more disparagingly, social justice warriors) attempt to stifle these freedoms in the name of safe spaces, trigger warnings, and inclusivity.
And when students or faculty members disagree with student activists’ beliefs or demands — it’s rarely a positive outcome for either party.
Students are urged to debate coherently and to listen to controversial campus speakers they might disagree with or even find offensive.
Those who stand for more conservative views are often quashed and their rights to disagree denied through legislated compliance. Those who repress conservatism deprive themselves of the intellectual growth that comes from exploring other perspectives and peacefully agreeing to disagree, rather than setting fire to the argument and forcing a “win.”
Such a win comes, for example, when schools begin to require all students and faculty to use certain pronouns for another’s gender, as is happening more and more around the country.
Having watched various institutions struggle to appease social activists and those who dare to challenge their growing tyranny, Eckerd College took preventative action. To keep certain students’ rights from overpowering common sense and freedom of speech, the tiny liberal arts school in Boca Ciega Bay, Florida, recently employed a statement to end some of the bickering.
Though Eckerd has not yet released the statement, it is largely based on the University of Chicago’s Committee on Freedom of Expression. That university said it is committed “to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members” of the school’s community. The University of Chicago also announced its support for “multiple forms of free expression [as] an important value of the university and its community.”
The statement is not school regulation at Eckerd, and students will not be penalized if they do not comply — though hate speech and harassment are banned. It is simply designed to urge students to debate coherently, to listen to controversial campus speakers they might disagree with or even find offensive, and to engage in what they consider uncomfortable discussions on subjects they would rather avoid.
In other words, the school is boldly announcing that if students are offended by something, they should deal with it — and grow from it — like rational adults instead of coddled children. The college also reserves the right to do things its student body might disagree with.
“College should challenge the set of beliefs you arrive with,” Eckerd’s dean of faculty, Suzan Harrison, told the Tampa Bay Times. “That’s part of the point of college, to expose you to new ideas, some of which will make you uncomfortable.”
Instead of avoiding what they fear or dislike — which can literally include anything from seeing clowns to mentioning the perceived rape culture of college campuses — students need to be exposed to discomfort to prepare for real life.
Harrison explained that some students have been so sheltered they believe even racism and sexism are no longer societal problems.
Colleges and universities should be the places where the First Amendment is most valued, respected, studied, and defended.
“I don’t want us to perpetuate those beliefs,” she said, “because then we send them out into the world ill-equipped to deal with what they will encounter. Silencing ideas that are dangerous and negative doesn’t make them go away — it often drives them underground.”
“I definitely support the needs of my fellow students,” Claire Russell, Eckerd student government vice president for student affairs, added. “But I do also think that a lot of these topics can aid in better conversation and a deeper understanding. When those topics are shut down or completely eliminated from the classroom, students don’t get to have those conversations.”
More schools need to emulate Eckerd and take such a stance. Student activists at the University of Missouri, Dartmouth, Yale, and many other colleges and universities around the country have shouted down what they find even remotely insulting or disagreeable. Instead of defending the right to free speech, they are blindly trying to strip others of the very right to freedom of expression they so vehemently demand for themselves.
Statements on the freedom of speech won’t quell all disputes, of course. There are still students who feel the Chicago statement is too relaxed, for example. But law professor Geoffrey R. Stone, who chaired the statement writing committee, warned, “Once you open the door to suppression of ideas, you don’t get to control whose ideas get suppressed. Once you create the precedent that says, okay, the university is allowed to do that, your ideas are going to get suppressed.”
Beyond statements, perhaps schools should also require students (and faculty) to take an introductory seminar on the importance of and true meaning of freedom of expression. Such classes should not be prerequisites solely for political science majors and law school students.
Colleges and universities should be the places where the First Amendment is most valued, respected, studied, and defended. It seems, though, that it is instead most endangered on campuses today. Unless this changes radically, even schools that try to resist could soon be engulfed by political correctness.