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The Fight for Free Speech: What Is Happening on Our College Campuses?

by Andrew Gripp, published

"This is not a day care. This is a university!"

This was the reaction from the president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, Dr. Everett Piper, in response to a student's complaint about a sermon he had delivered on the topic of love. The student, Dr. Piper wrote, said he felt "victimized" by the sermon because he was made to feel guilty about not showing enough love toward others.

"Our culture has actually taught our kids to be this self-absorbed and narcissistic," Piper says. "Any time their feelings are hurt, they are the victims. Anyone who dares challenge them and, thus, makes them 'feel bad' about themselves, is a 'hater,' a 'bigot,' an 'oppressor,' and a 'victimizer.'"

Dr. Piper's comments came in response not only to his own interaction with the OKWU student, but in response to dozens of similar incidents across the country in recent months, as students, faculty, and administrators have clashed over what sort of expressions are acceptable on college campuses.

—a movie about the gay rights movement—not because the film portrayed homosexuality as indecent, but rather because, in the words of a student petition, it "reinforc a hierarchy of oppression" and discounted the role of racial and sexual minorities in the 1960s protests.

Students at Colorado College, for example, recently tried to prevent the screening of the film Stonewall

The petition aimed at preventing the screening called it "discursively violent," and a student claimed it posed "a threat to our identity and our safety."

A student at Brown University used similar language to describe her retreat to a "safe space" during a debate about sexual assault on campus. There she was surrounded by "coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies," according to a New York Times article by Judith Shulevitz. The student claimed she had to leave the debate forum because she "was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints" that contradicted her "dearly and closely held beliefs."

Shulevitz points to several causes of the "quasi-medicalized terminology" that students use to articulate their discomfort. One source is academics who blur the line between the physical and the mental. Scholar Mari J. Matsuda, for instance, worries that college students are vulnerable to "the violence of the word" when they encounter novel ideas away from home.

Schulevitz also points to the consequences of national guidelines, including Titles VII and IX of the Civil Rights Act, which protect students at schools that receive federal funding from "hostile environments."

According to FIRE, an advocacy group that promotes free speech in higher education, federal rules are a significant cause of the regulation of speech on college campuses. In 2013, the Department of Education released a new code following an investigation at the University of Montana that has driven schools around the country to define conduct such as "sexual harassment" in vague and possibly unconstitutional ways.

The regulation of speech has taken on other forms as well. In addition to creating "safe spaces" for students, schools have created "free speech zones" on college campuses as well. In 2013, a student at Modesto Junior College was ordered to stop handing out copies of the Constitution because he had not received prior permission and because he was outside the designated free speech area (the school later settled the case with the student and revised its speech codes).

According to FIRE, a majority of the public colleges and universities it surveyed "clearly and substantially" restrict free speech. In its assessment of the policies of 333 such institutions, 54 percent received a "red light rating," meaning that the school's policies threaten students' First Amendment rights.

In the growing debate over free speech issues, some administrators have affirmed their commitment to the free exchange of ideas. This year, the University of Chicago and Purdue University issued statements of principles guaranteeing “the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn," adding, "It is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”

Even state legislatures are beginning to take notice and respond with legislation. In 2014, Virginia passed a law disallowing "free speech zones" on public campuses. Missouri passed a similar law in July 2015.

Yet elsewhere across the country, students are demanding that administrators crack down on disrespectful and offensive speech. In November, after protests at the University of Missouri led to the resignation of president Tim Wolfe, students at Amherst College demanded that students who posted "All Lives Matter" and pro-free speech posters be subject to disciplinary action and partake in “extensive training for racial and cultural competency.”

In some cases, administrators and faculty members have agreed to student demands.

At Claremont McKenna College, students demonstrated by voicing their concerns about "microaggressions" and demanded more resources for minority students and sensitivity training for professors. After announcing some reforms, the college president, Hiram Chodosh, said that the goal of his institution is “to provide a very special home for our students as a bridge from their families to the truly adult and independent world.”

At Yale University, tensions rose after the publication of a lecturer's e-mail condoning "regressive" and "transgressive" experiences in reference to racially insensitive Halloween costumes. On the heels of student protests, the administration pledged to increase the number of faculty members in the fields of race and ethnicity, and the instructor involved in the incident later announced her resignation.

In California, the pressure to regulate speech on campus has escalated. Faculty and administrators in the University of California (UC) system have recently held seminars to determine what kinds of comments might be racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive. Some argued that offensive statements might include, "There is only one race, the human race," and, "America is the land of opportunity."

In September 2015, the UC Board of Regents adopted new "Principles Against Intolerance," which, though non-binding, could serve as the basis for policymaking in the future. The document defines as intolerant, "hate speech, derogatory language reflecting stereotypes or prejudice, or inflammatory or derogatory use of culturally recognized symbols of hate, prejudice, or discrimination.”

The "Principles Against Intolerance" mirrors students' misunderstanding of the First Amendment. In a recent survey of 800 American college students, 35 percent incorrectly stated that the Constitution does not protect hate speech.

Yet the United States is not the only country where the issue of free speech is being disputed on college campuses.

In the United Kingdom, a debate about abortion at Oxford University’s Christ Church college was cancelled after feminist students threatened to disrupt the event. The treasurer of the college's student union applauded the administration's decision, saying, “It clearly makes the most sense for the safety — both physical and mental — of the students who live and work in Christ Church.”

At University College London, a former student named Macer Gifford, who joined the YPG — a Kurdish rebel group — to fight against ISIS, was banned from speaking about his experiences on campus. Explaining the decision, a student union representative said that, “The Syrian crisis is a very contentious topic with many different groups, and although I understand YPG are fighting against ISIS the situation is far too complex to understand in black and white as expected by the student."

The president of the student organization that coordinated the event was also told that the student union was wary of appearing to take sides in the conflict by giving Gifford a platform to speak.

"One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist," the club president was told.

Such speaker "disinvitations" are a thorny subject on American campuses as well. FIRE has documented dozens of cases of speakers being disinvited from speaking engagements in recent years.

In many cases, left-wing students have been the agitators behind preventing speakers' appearances: notable examples include Condoleezza Rice's

withdrawal from speaking at Rutger's University and IMF managing director Christine Lagarde's decision not to speak at Smith College's commencement ceremony in response to student protestations.

Yet conservatives have campaigned for disinvitations as well. John Corvino, a professor and supporter of same-sex marriage, has had speaking engagements cancelled at two private religious colleges, and Victoria Reggie Kennedy, the widow of Senator Ted Kennedy, was disinvited by Anna Maria College for her defense of same-sex marriage.

In recent years, perhaps the greatest controversy has surrounded speakers with a history of criticizing Islam. Nonie Darwish, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Bill Maher have all had campus controversies, and Pamela Geller and Maryam Namazie have faced hostile audiences at their recent college events while giving talks about the threats of jihad and shari'a.

As administrations grapple with speech issues on their campuses, some college presidents see these controversies as teaching moments about how to have meaningful dialogue while maintaining free speech.

"I think that our students, probably more so than previous generations, come to college having been marinated in a media environment that does not foster productive conversation  across disagreements," Williams College president Adam Falk

wrote after students at his school disinvited a critic of feminism from a speaking engagement. "That means it is even more important that colleges find ways to work with students to teach them that and to model that for them."

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