Free speech is in serious danger on college campuses. Everyone knows that. It’s common knowledge. Of course, it’s complete crap, but you hear it everywhere. Take President Salovey’s freshman address last year, when he informed his captive audience that the “freedom to express ideas has been threatened.” Salovey elaborated, “Invitations to provocative speakers have been withdrawn; politicians, celebrities and even university presidents invited to deliver commencement addresses have, under pressure, declined to speak to graduates.” Or take the words of another president. “I don’t agree that [students] have to be coddled and protected from different points of view,” Barack Obama told an audience in Iowa, shortly before parodying a college student who whines, “I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.” Or take the recent debate sweeping across campus about racism at Yale, which Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, called “one of the most intense free-speech controversies I’ve ever seen.”
What all of these critics fail to understand is that there is, indeed, a threat to free speech on college campuses — but it isn’t the students. It’s university administrators. Allow me to explain.
First, let’s note that the so-called crisis of free speech decried by Obama, Salovey, Lukianoff and all the rest does not, in fact, exist. This crisis is actually just the cowardice of speakers unwilling to face free speech from a viewpoint other than their own. The examples inevitably brought up — of controversial commencement speakers like Condoleezza Rice, Christine Lagarde and Robert Birgeneau bowing out—usually skate over the fact that no one disinvited or blocked these speakers. Likewise, no one has shouted down or withdrawn invitations to Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and the other comedians who have claimed to be unwilling to speak on campuses anymore because students are just too darn sensitive and can’t take a joke. (Likewise, no one restricted the rights of students who want to dress up in offensive Halloween costumes; they simply counseled sensitivity and thoughtfulness.)
In the face of potential criticism or protest over some of the messed up stuff they’ve done or said, these speakers and comedians have voluntarily opted not to put themselves out there. They are the ones unwilling to face speech that they disagree with. These speakers are avoiding campuses precisely because they don’t want to face the free speech of their ideological adversaries.
Or take the new cri de coeur from the anti-P.C. center and right: trigger warnings. Trigger warnings, many claim, promote censorship and limit discourse — and when did college students get so sensitive anyway? In reality, as a 2015 Harris poll illustrated, those on the right are far more likely to favor ideologically motivated censorship than those on the left. Rather, trigger warnings are simply a recommendation, a courtesy — not censorship. They are a long-overdue recognition that assault and violence are far more common than the stigmas of the past allowed us to acknowledge — especially for the most marginalized among us — and we should respect that.
The marginalized can’t be as effectively silenced any more — and that’s terrifying to those in power.
In a nation with literally thousands of colleges and millions of students, those claiming there is a free speech crisis on campuses — and, for the record, they’ve been claiming this for decades — have been forced to rely on a handful of misleading anecdotes. And anecdotes do not a crisis make.
Yet, as I wrote above, there is a crisis. It is not often a crisis of censorship or suppression, yet it is an important one. When one side of a “discourse” has a much louder megaphone than the other, and when it uses that megaphone to actively mislead, it is limiting the ability of the other side to get its point a fair hearing. Free speech is threatened when administrators tear down a poster pointing out a lack of faculty diversity and replace it with lollipop-laden pieces of propaganda. Free speech is threatened when the administration puts up highly misleading posters mere days in advance of a rally for graduate student unionization — and then claims the timing was purely coincidental. Posters that, by the way, completely ignored the issues the grad students were protesting over. Posters that were a patent attempt to obfuscate and distort, an attempt to avoid genuine engagement.
Free speech is threatened when a residential college master shouts down his students; even if they shout back, he has all the institutional power. Their “discourse” is neither open, nor equal, nor free.
Free speech is threatened when administrators shut students out of important discussions, such as those concerning divestment, but then bring them in after a decision has been made in order to pretend there was dialogue. Free speech is threatened when administrators paper over that whole reality with deceptive press releases or the conveniently timed announcement of half-hearted sustainability initiatives.
Misdirection and propaganda threaten free speech far more than trigger warnings do.
Free speech is also threatened when, as Tyler Blackmon ’16 noted in these pages, President Salovey announces in his freshman address that “petitions or protests” or the use of social media is contrary to a “rational, open discourse.” Salovey’s speech said students should have a dialogue about race — but only on his limited, self-serving terms. Dean Jonathan Holloway echoed this construction when he said, in a freshman address calling for a dialogue, that certain things are already “off the table.”
Free speech on campus is vitally important. But free speech is threatened when the whole discussion surrounding it ignores the real threat and castigates the most marginalized among us. Free speech is threatened when those who already have more power use it to mislead and to silence.
Scott Stern is a 2015 graduate of Branford College. He is a former staff columnist for the News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .