Are Students Now Entitled to Freedom FROM Free Speech in the Classroom?

by Frank Furedi

The news that students at City, University of London have voted to ban The Sun, Daily Mail and Express newspapers from its campus – a ban which could be extended to other media organisations – is just the latest example of how free speech is under threat at universities across the globe.

The university’s student union voted to ban the newspapers in an “opposing fascism and social divisiveness in the UK media” motion, saying that “freedom of speech should not be used as an excuse to attack the weakest and poorest members of society.” The union also added that all titles publish stories that are inherently sexist, stating that:

There is no place for the Sun, Daily Mail or Express (In their current form) on City, University of London campuses or properties.

But this is nothing new. The UK prime minister, Theresa May, recently hit out at British universities for setting up “safe spaces” on campus, amid concerns that self-censorship is curtailing freedom of speech. And in recent years, a climate of intolerance has enveloped campuses – to the point where the value of free speech itself is under scrutiny.

This has led to the entire higher education sector becoming estranged from taking tolerance and freedom seriously – with recent researchshowing that 80 percent of British universities have actively censored freedom of speech on campus.

Free speech vs diversity

One of the problems is that on both sides of the Atlantic, there is the growing tendency to represent free speech and diversity as contradictory values. And a recent report from the US acknowledges that among younger faculty members and students, the value of free speech is trumped by the idea of diversity.

It notes that “at times” campus controversies “have led some groups of students to question the value of free speech itself.” The report warns that:

As students graduate, their attitudes toward speech will permeate society at large, influencing how a new generation of teachers, scholars, courts and citizens view the balance between sometimes competing values.

But my research actually indicates that what is at stake is not so much a generational divide, but a much more fundamental shift towards an outlook that values diversity over free speech.

You can say what you want, but…

Universities have recently come under great pressure to balance these apparently competing ideals. And a few university leaders have actually taken action to remind the academic community about the merits of free speech – particularly in the U.S.

Lee C. Bollinger, the president of Columbia University, gave a recent no-nonsense address that upheld free speech – while the dean of students at the University of Chicago went so far as to inform new undergraduates that Chicago does not accept the practice of trigger warnings and safe spaces.

Other universities hesitated to follow Chicago’s lead, but they too felt obliged to affirm their belief in free speech – albeit a weaker version.

Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California, took a slightly less hardline approach, saying that safe spaces and trigger warnings are good for fostering diversity. But she also presented free speech as something that has intrinsic value, saying:

Educating students from an informed “more speech” approach as opposed to silencing an objectionable speaker should be one of academia’s key roles.

She also explained how the status of free speech on campus has changed as the contemporary university has become more diverse. She claimed that in the context of a diverse student body, a safe space is a “good idea” because it allows undergraduates who identify in certain ways to support one another.

Other university leaders have gone further and reasoned explicitly that free speech and diversity may be contradictory values. And many administrators now argue that free speech constitutes a risk to the welfare of new groups of “non-traditional” and minority students.

Michael Roth, head of Wesleyan University, wrote that in the past, campuses were “far less diverse places than they are today” and consequently “there were many voices that none of us got to hear.” The implication of Roth’s statement is that the exercise of free speech in the past was in some sense responsible for silencing the voices of minority groups.

A tricky balancing act

This idea, that freedom of speech and diversity are contradictory ideals has a significant influence on campus culture. And defenders of safe spaces say that freedom needs to be “balanced” or “traded off” against diversity. “I definitely think it’s a balancing act,” observed Gale Baker, university counsel for California State University. She sees “open and frank discussion and free expression” as “competing” with the “value of wanting a diverse and inclusive community.”

In the current climate, the pressure to “balance free speech and diversity” has invariably led to the notion that the former must give way to the latter. And the way free speech has been made less important than diversity can be clearly seen in the way universities frame their mission statements.

Take the recent statement made by Ronnie Green, the chancellor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, as he welcomed new students to campus. Though he mentioned free speech in passing, his remarks were primarily devoted to celebrating the value of diversity. As he put it: “our beliefs on diversity and inclusion” are “not-negotiable.”

Similarly, the statement of core values of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, like that of many other colleges, includes diversity but not free speech. It gets a perfunctory mention, only to be followed by a clause stating “we do not tolerate words and actions of hate and disrespect” – which makes an implicit association between free expression and hatred. Clearly demonstrating how the rhetoric of “I believe in free speech, but…” is fast becoming the new normal in the academy.

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22 Comments for “Are Students Now Entitled to Freedom FROM Free Speech in the Classroom?”

  1. In the 80s I recall watching the episode of War and Remembrance in which a scene within the gas chamber was vividly portrayed. At the start of the episode there was a very clear written warning that disturbing scenes would be shown related to the Holocaust. I also remember an episode of Diff’rent Strokes where Kimberley was sexually assaulted, and Conrad Bain spoke to the audience before the episode to explain what would be shown.

    Were we “belittled” by these (what would now be called) trigger warnings? Why are we hand-wringing about it now?

    • Fair enough but moderation is the key. Perhaps what is really objected to is the culture of victimization that is now in vogue. We have ‘victims’ who can’t wait to be victimized and who need to view themselves as persecuted. Above Elizabeth talked about a black student running a gauntlet of KKK types with their burning torches trying to get to class. Ok, I’m dressing it up a wee bit. But honestly is that really in play? Is that actually going to happen? OTOH a pro-life student is very likely to be physically assaulted by pro-choice zealots, and that seems to be fine. Prudently used, perhaps trigger warnings might have some genuine use, but the thing as become part of the Victim grand narrative.

  2. There is an important difference between “safe spaces” that prevent a student being harassed for their race, gender or sexuality and intellectual debates that aim to present a diverse slice of opinions.

    There is no reason why the latter cannot exist to encourage students to consider view points beyond their own, without that involving your students of colour having to walk through a KKK demonstration to get to class.

    • Absolutely. Or walking through a crowd of SJWs shouting “rape apologist” or whatever.

    • What about KKK marchers being mobbed out by their opponents? Did you ever see the videos of that famous case back in the States – nuts, just can’t remember the name of the town – anyway, KKK won the right to march (freedom of speech, and of assembly, and of opinion, and of demonstration were still then protected in the US for everyone) … anyway they marched all right, but they were ‘harassed’ to hell by 100X their number of people who let the KKK know, in hurtful and un-inclusive terms, just what they thought of the KKK. Feelings were hurt!

      The thing is Ms. Tasker, that we have freedom or we don’t. If we have it, we have it for everyone. If MLK can march then the KKK can march. The alternative is to let the government decide who can and can not march, and where would that lead?

  3. All good and well, but what happened to the idea that freedoms come with responsibility for the consequences of our actions?

    In the UK I have the freedom to walk through a red light, but with that freedom comes the responsibility that I need to carefully look out not to be run over by a car. In many other nations, I do not have the same freedom, yet in those nations the responsibility for avoiding accidents also lies more heavily with drivers.

    Freedom of speech (as in freedom from government interference) is a fantastic right. I enjoy it every day. Yet it doesn’t give me an automatic right to a platform. And as a societal value, it only keeps working if most people exercise that freedom responsibly. That is what seems to be lost at the moment. What happens if it is used to spread hatred and lies about groups in society, and the persons who do so wash their hands of any responsibility for the consequences of what they say? Surely there is a case to be made that freedom of speech, used in that way, does not contribute to, but takes away from a viable and strong democracy?

    Note that this is different from banning any opinion that makes us feel uncomfortable. Rather, it covers those situations where freedom of speech creates and reinforces divisions in society that need not exist if said free speech was exercised with more care.

    • Of course the problem is that we always think our ideological opponents are spreading lies. Some people thought Darwin was spreading lies. Some people think Hilary Clinton was spreading lies (which goes to show they aren’t always wrong ;-)).

      To take a concrete example, would you want to ban discussion of the wearing of the veil? Would any opinion that it should be forbidden be banned? That’s discussion, not policy, or insult.

  4. I like the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, Louise Richardson’s comment on admission to the University: “How do we ensure that we educate our students both to embrace complexity and retain conviction, while daring: ‘to disturb the universe;’ to understand that an Oxford education is not meant to be a comfortable experience, an Oxford education is not intended to guarantee a livelihood? How do we ensure that they appreciate the value of engaging with ideas they find objectionable, trying through reason to change another’s mind, while always being open to changing their own? How do we ensure that our students understand the true nature of freedom of inquiry and expression?”

    • The issue with that statement, and similar statements, is that they almost invariably are spoken by people with white middle class privilege. Very rarely are they endorsed by people who actually experience day to day racism, are traumatised by abuse, or have experienced extreme poverty. Its an expression of privilege.

      These same people also struggle to comprehend expressions of that self-same trauma that may be self-destructive or destructive of property or other people as a result of being unexpectedly exposed to triggering content.

      We are more than happy to modify for ASD students – providing “transition warnings” and all sorts of things. But if we do it for a rape victim, we are stifling some kind of freedom?

      • Does growing up in a rat infested house with an outside bucket toilet count as poverty? For full disclosure, I am white, male and heterosexual.

        I’m afraid from where I am looking it’s a bunch of sappy middle class kids who want protection. If you’ve lived through poverty, talking about it with a bunch of rich kids really isn’t so bad.

        Now if someone had suggested to me that poor people deserved all they got for being lazy, I would have told them where to get off. But I would rather have the chance to challenge their views.

        Btw Jade – I’ve actually found myself partly agreeing with you above.

      • Wow! Jade McKay speaks for all the less privileged now. When did you win that election?

      • Let’s have a variety of universities then. Let’s have universities that are 100% safe space in which no ‘privileged’ people are allowed at all and in which nothing will ever be heard that is offensive to anyone. Other universities that cater only to blacks or homosexuals or short lesbians of size or wimin only. But let’s also have a few universities that have a trigger warning at the entrance to the grounds:

        You are about to enter a university where the “Sun” newspaper is sold and where freedom of speech is practiced! There are privileged people within who may not understand the exigencies of your victimhood. Triggering content may be experienced.!!ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK!!

      • Not harm – but discomfort. And a very specific form of quite unpleasant discomfort – that of having ones cherished preconceptions challenged. And even of having to put oneself back together again afterwards.

  5. The idea of trigger warnings is not intended to stifle speech. It was originally developed to help support veterans with PTSD from being inadvertently exposed to things that could trigger an episode.

    As our understanding of PTSD and other mental health conditions stemming from extreme maltreatment or traumatic events has widened, so too has the practice of providing a trigger warning so that people who are, for example, survivors of childhood sexual abuse can prepare themselves for the content, or remove themselves if it is going to cause them harm. I fail to see why this is a negative thing.

    It is no different to providing “transition time” or other kinds of modifications for students with ASD or other disorders.

    Similarly, safe spaces are designed for students suffering trauma as a place where they won’t be exposed to triggering content or experiences. For some, they are a place where they can engage with the troubling content required by some courses in a place where they have access to the support they need to do so properly and confidently.

    I don’t understand why these two things are so inextricably linked to the legitimate criticism surrounding the banning of speakers on campuses, or the stifling of free speech. While some advocates of safe spaces or content or trigger warnings may also campaign against allowing certain speakers or groups on campus, the two issues are separate.

    • I don’t think they are separate. Trigger warnings and safe spaces send a message that it’s not OK to feel discomfort and that any feeling like anxiety, sadness etc is wrong rather than part of the human condition.

      We need to accept that some people feel traumatised for what others would argue are fairly trivial matters. On the other side of the coin, of course there are those who suffer but shutting them away from a world that might provoke negative feelings is not dealing with the problem, it just pathologises it. Seek help with counselors etc if you seriously can’t cope to hearing a word without extreme distress.

      This is what kids are learning in school as well. They are learning that it’s bad to feel bad and that they must be ill/have low self esteem etc. Curriculums are dominated by therapeutic education rather than academic content. The focus on the self is becoming so extreme that it feeds on itself in a slef perpetuating cycle of narricism

      • Your response indicates a great deal of bias, and a complete disinterest in understanding the topic or the concepts under discussion.

        You are wilfully misinterpreting the concept to suit your own biases.

        For what it is worth, trigger/content warnings and safe spaces are not intended to facilitate people hiding from discomfort. They are intended merely to support traumatised people, or people who feel marginalised.

        It is very easy for one who does not have to go through life as a target of virulent and offensive speech constantly to mock the concept or suggest it somehow indicates “softness”. But this demonstrates the WASP-ish aversion to showing any kind of compassion or empathy to those who are different from us.

        Students in schools are not learning that “its bad to feel bad” or that “it’s not OK to feel discomfort.” That is a ridiculous statement. Rather, what they are learning through the introduction of content warnings and safe spaces is that discomfort can and should be managed through non-harmful or destructive coping strategies, and to be thoughtful and understanding and tolerant of others.

        • No, students are learning that we are all damaged, all fragile and all unable to cope with life’s challenges. Best to find a place to hide amongst other “damaged” people rather than confront, discuss and debate issues/topics they may make someone feel uncomfortable or cause offense.

    • As above, I would have no problem with trigger warnings used sparingly to let me know there’s some difficult stuff coming up. That’s like the warnings you get on TV “some viewers …” – but if you’re at university you should then buckle down and deal with it.

      I would also see a warning about descriptions of rape, say, as entirely appropriate. A warning about opinions on the causes of rape which the student might find unpalatable is entirely inappropriate.

      As a footnote I have never done a piece of education worth doing which hasn’t left me feeling uncomfortable at some point because some of my cherished ideas were being challenged. I don’t like the experience, and at times have felt angry inside. But I accept that I have grown from the experience.

    • Like so many things, the idea of a trigger warning has merit in theory, it is the over application that get’s crazy. Also, there is the sub-text of fragility in all this. There is a certain dignity in being expected to handle it when one sees or hears something that might be traumatic for you. I think of my nice who lost her father on 9/11, yet, over and over again she is shown clips of those buildings coming down. It must be traumatic for her but the solution is not a ‘safe space’ where she is protected from the news or from history – we expect her to cope, and so she does. How many times have the kids of JFK seen his head blown open? Learn to handle it. If you need a safe space, stay in your bedroom and never answer the door or turn on the TV, who knows what you might see?

  6. You see the problem with censorship is that I am now more motivated to see the censored comment below than properly engaging with the article.I probably would barely noticed it if it hadn’t been censored or ‘moderated’ which is, I see, the current euphemism for censored.

  7. The trajectory of the college campus environment is headed for the day when college becomes programmed “Day Care” for age 18-25.

  8. Why bother having a diverse lot of people if they all think alike. Intellectual wimps in fear of diverse ideas.
    Emotional wimps in fear of their own discomfort.

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