Freedom of speech is protected in the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But universities across the U.S. are debating if they will tolerate all kind of speech on campus – even speech that students say is offensive, hateful or divisive.
For example, in 2015 a University of Kansas professor almost lost her job after students complained that she used the racial slur known as the “n-word.” The word has historically been used in the U.S. to demean African-Americans.
However, a four-month investigation showed the professor used the word not as an insult but as part of a discussion on race.
At Yale University two professors, a husband and wife, both stepped down from their positions in May 2016. This came after students demanded they be removed for an email one of the professors sent to students.
The email criticized the university administration for asking students to avoid wearing costumes that might be considered culturally insensitive for the holiday called Halloween.
And in Illinois last year, Northwestern University investigated one of its professors after she wrote a controversial article for the Chronicle of Higher Education.
In it, the professor criticized some universities’ new rules against sexual relationships between professors and students. She said the rules promoted an idea of professors as having nearly unlimited power over students. And, she said, the rules promoted an idea of students as victims. Those ideas, she said, create a feeling of extreme fear about sex.
Students reacted strongly to the article. They said the professor’s words made them feel uncomfortable about reporting sexual misbehavior on campus.
Eventually, the university announced the professor had not violated any law.
What is the role of the university?
In answer to these events and others, university leaders are discussing how free speech fits into higher education.
Scott A. Bass is the provost at American University, or AU, in Washington, DC. He has worked in higher education for almost 40 years.
Bass says professors have a duty to challenge their students’ thinking. He says professors should discuss topics that may be controversial or make students feel uncomfortable.
"That is part of the college experience: to read, to think, to hear ideas that may be congruent or different than what you have long thought. That is part of the development of intellectual life and part of what a university stands for."
Bass says the faculty senate at AU shares this view of a college experience. In 2015, the senate voted to approve a statement protecting freedom of speech at their school.
Bass says the faculty senate at AU rarely completely agrees on anything. But every single member agreed to the statement released last September.
The statement said, in part:
"As laws and individual sensitivities may seek to restrict, label, warn, or exclude specific content, the [university] must stand firm as a place that is open to diverse ideas and free expression. These are standards … that American University will not compromise."
Controversy outside the classroom
AU is not the only university to make such a statement. In the last two years, faculty committees at the University of Chicago and the University of Minnesota formally defended freedom of speech at their schools.
Colin Campbell is the head of that faculty committee at the University of Minnesota. He says the faculty chose to approve the statement following several student protests about controversial events outside the classroom.
In one event, students objected to a poster that showed an image of the Muslim religious figure Mohammed. The image was originally published by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, after a 2015 attack on its offices in Paris. Faculty created the poster to advertise an event discussing, ironically, free speech.
But University of Minnesota students complained that the poster was offensive to Muslim people. Most Muslims around the world object to drawings or other visual images of Mohammed.
In another event at the University of Minnesota, some students protested when other students invited a divisive journalist to speak on campus. Journalist Milo Yiannopoulos is well known for making controversial statements.
Stephanie Taylor helped organize the protest. She belongs to a group called Students for a Democratic Society at the University of Minnesota, or SDS. The group objects to Yiannopoulus, calling his language and ideas "hate speech."
Taylor says the protests were not trying to prevent Yiannopoulus from speaking or anyone else from listening. But, she says, her group believes they must speak against people they feel use their public identities only to spread hate.
"These are speakers that have free speech all the time and they actually have more platforms … than most people do on this campus. That is, the positions of power that they’re in, the money that they are being given … to spew, for lack of a better word, ideas at people that are not, in our opinion, furthering a greater good."
Campbell says students often protest when controversial public figures come to campus. He agrees that universities hold power when it comes to who teaches and whom they invite to speak. Yet, Campbell says shouting and making noise does not help people with different beliefs reach common ground.
"Your ability to understand your own arguments becomes stronger when they’re challenged. … And I feel like our culture would be strengthened by examining and debating and discussing with individuals with whom we don’t agree."
Campbell adds that free speech at universities has brought positive social change. He says that 30 years ago, most people did not want to discuss HIV/AIDS because it was a disease that mostly affected the homosexual community. But because universities were able to explore a controversial topic, researchers could achieve many successes towards treating the disease.
Can young people today accept different opinions?
Bass at American University says young people today have problems accepting opinions different from their own. Social media makes it possible for young people to read and hear only information they already agree with, he says.
Indeed, public opinion in the U.S. seems to moving toward limiting free speech. A 2015 Pew Research Center study showed that 40 percent of Americans between 18 and 35 years old believe the government should be able to censor language that is offensive to minorities.
But Bass says it is important to remember that censorship has a dark history. In the U.S. in the 1940s and 1950s, government officials used censorship to prevent people from supporting communism.
At the time, Senator Joseph McCarthy became known for investigating so-called critics of the government. His campaign unfairly ruined the careers and reputations of many people.
Sarah McBride offers another point of view. She asks universities simply to proceed carefully with heated subjects.
McBride is the national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, or HRC. The HRC is a non-profit group that supports equal treatment for homosexual and transgender people.
McBride says students from marginalized populations have often lived through horrible experiences. Sometimes discussing these topics can cause people to relive those experiences. Many young people have asked professors at least to warn students that difficult topics will be discussed.
However, Bass at AU says professors cannot possibly know of every bad experience that every student has ever had. Universities should try to create support and community for these students, he says. But creating that kind of warning system, called “trigger warnings” by some, would be almost impossible.
McBride acknowledges that students and faculty must work together to find solutions.
"Schools individually should and can make the decision about what is hate speech and what is offensive. … But it’s not this black and white conversation that I think folks on both sides tend to make it out as."
Campbell at the University of Minnesota agrees with McBride: neither side of this debate is completely right, they say.
For one thing, Campbell says, his students’ objections to some speech suggest they are much more understanding of other people and cultures than students were in his generation. And, he says, that attitude makes him proud.
But in the end, Campbell adds, universities can only create policies which suggest what sort of language and activity they feel is inappropriate. It is the role of the U.S. Supreme Court to decide what is legally protected under freedom of speech.
I’m Pete Musto.
Words in This Story
tolerate – v. to let something that is bad or unpleasant exist, happen, or be done
divisive – adj. causing a lot of disagreement between people and causing them to separate into different groups
complain(ed) – v. to say or write that you are unhappy, sick, or uncomfortable or that you do not like something
slur – n. an insulting remark about someone or someone's character
demean – v. to cause someone or something to seem less important or less worthy of respect
costume(s) – n. the clothes that are worn by someone such as an actor who is trying to look like a different person or thing
insensitive – adj. showing that you do not know or care about the feelings of other people
controversial – adj. relating to or causing much discussion, disagreement, or argument
uncomfortable – adj. causing a feeling of being embarrassed or uneasy
misbehavior – n. to behave badly
provost – n. an official of high rank at a university
challenge – v. to say or show that something may not be true, correct, or legal
congruent – adj. matching or in agreement with something
faculty – n. the group of teachers in a school or college
sensitivities - n. the tendency to become upset about things that are done to you, are said about you, or relate to you
diverse – adj. made up of people or things that are different from each other
poster – n. a usually large printed notice often having a picture on it that is put in a public place to advertise something
ironically – adv. strange or funny because something such as a situation is different from what you expected
journalist – n. a person whose job is collecting, writing, and editing news stories for newspapers, magazines, television, or radio
campus – n. the area and buildings around a university, college or school
spew – v. to cause something to flow out in a fast and forceful way
homosexual – adj. based on or showing a sexual attraction to people of the same sex
censor – v. to examine books, movies, or letters in order to remove things that are considered to be offensive, immoral, harmful to society
reputation(s) – n. the common opinion that people have about someone or something
proceed – v. to continue to do something
transgender – adj. of or relating to people who have a sexual identity that is not clearly male or clearly female
marginalized – adj. put or kept in a powerless or unimportant position within a society or group
proud – adj. very happy and pleased because of something you have done, something you own, someone you know or are related to
inappropriate – adj. not right or suited for some purpose or situation