It’s Free Speech Week, and why some colleges hate it

This is Free Speech Week, a time to, according to organizers, “raise public awareness of the importance of free speech in our democracy and to celebrate that freedom.”

College campuses are perfect forums to exercise free speech, to stretch the limits with contrasting, provocative and even revolutionary ideas, allowing them to rise or fall based on their merits.

Unfortunately, too many colleges and universities are headed in just the opposite direction.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) reports at least 240 instances within the last decade where students and/or faculty made concerted efforts to block speakers because they thought their views objectionable.

Just last week, the invitation to conservative author Suzanne Venker  to speak at Williams College in Massachusetts was rescinded by the student group that invited her because other students objected to her controversial views on feminism.*

The student newspaper, The Record, supported the move. “The college should not allow speech that challenges fundamental human rights and devalues people based on their identity markers… It is possible that some speech is too harmful to invite to campus. The college should be a safe space for students, a place where people respect others’ identities.”

It is indeed troubling that future journalists are advocates for censorship. But the Williams worrywarts are hardly alone.

The William F. Buckley, Jr. Program at Yale revealed in a recent survey of college campuses that by a margin of 52 percent to 42 percent “students say their college or university should forbid people from speaking on campus who have a history of engaging in hate speech.”

Seventy-two percent said they support disciplinary action [emphasis added] against “any student or faculty member on campus who uses language that is considered racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise offensive.”

In Connecticut, the Wesleyan University school paper came under attack from students and faculty after a student wrote an opinion piece questioning the Black Lives Matter protest movement. Wesleyan President Michael Roth came to the defense of the paper and the First Amendment. “We always have the right to respond with our opinions, but there is no right not to be offended,” he said.

And he’s exactly right.  Instead of cultivating different ideas, too many college campuses are becoming thought gulags of “micro-aggressions” (a subject all its own) and “trigger warnings” (warnings professors must give to students in advance in case the material may “trigger” emotional distress).

The First Amendment Center’s Gene Policinski said the political correctness of college campuses is depriving students of a valuable part of their education. “Eliminating the serendipity of discovering other viewpoints or the intellectual challenge of confronting persuasive views that differ from our own drains both the meaning and value of free speech.”

Free speech may be constitutionally protected, but it only survives if it is exercised vigorously and guarded relentlessly. College campuses should be the front line of defense, not the training ground for the thought police.

*(The commentary has been corrected to show that Williams College did not initiate the invitation or rescind it.  The event was organized by a student group. “Williams College has a long history of inviting speakers from all viewpoints,” said spokeswoman Mary Dettloff.)

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