By Amara McCune
It is clear that free speech is neither free nor infinite in its extent. On the stage of college campuses, it enters an environment where boundaries are blurred and opinions are stagnant. Somehow, despite the constant calls for dialogue and open minds, campus discussion pits groups against each other instead of engaging them in one another’s viewpoints. In the wake of the events of Yale and Mizzou last fall, and continuing on to campus controversies of divestment and anti-Semitism, the question of free speech on college campuses is all too real. The current crisis of free speech, instead of encouraging speech itself, is only stifling the very thing it intends to promote.
Last month, David Brooks of the New York Times penned a captivating piece questioning the evolutionary track of the American moral system. According to Brooks, judgment permeates modern college campuses, as evidenced by a shift in American culture toward a shame society in which others’ opinions and actions may be directly condemned. In such an intellectually stimulating environment as Stanford, it is almost expected that we will form and be able to articulate our own opinions on current-event questions. The tradition of freedom of expression and change has been part of Stanford’s history, ranging from protests during the Vietnam-era to the discussions of diversity today.
The difference, however, is that on today’s college campuses, much of the discussion around these issues occurs largely over the internet. A few weeks ago, campus was embroiled in a debate over Gabriel Knight’s comments at an ASSU Senate meeting and the extent of anti-Semitism. While interpersonal dialogue did occur, and sparked the event in the first place, the information was delivered to us via op-eds and comment sections. The immediate outcry and very public shaming that ensued was remarkable, with calls for Knight to resign. Regardless of the issue itself, the immediate label of certain speech as anti-Semitic puts an automatic stopper on all debate, stifles the voices all those who might be left confused or with questions and hinders investigations into what actually happened or was intended.
Much of this has to do with the evolving shame culture campuses like ours are slowly adopting. While Knight’s statement may have been offensive, it didn’t necessarily need to be shut down, especially in a place that is supposed to be open to intellectual conversations and higher learning. We should be welcoming to questions and discussions, however uncomfortable they might make us. There is a historical lesson in Knight’s speech, and an open discussion, rather than harsh condemnation, might have made these ideas accessible to those who might be wondering exactly why they were considered offensive. The entire point of college is to be introduced to new ideas, contemplate them and form our own opinions. That process cannot occur if our opinions must conform to a mold determined by the social movement of the day, or if we are afraid to question the status quo.
According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which awards a rating to colleges based on their free speech allowances and restrictions, Stanford has “yellow light” policies, which are considered to have questionable consequences on campus free speech, including the Fundamental Standard and the Acts of Intolerance Protocol. This is because, particularly in the case of latter, which defines an act of intolerance against a minority group, these policies are largely interpretive. As FIRE explains, “Acts of intolerance that do not rise to the level of a hate crime may constitute constitutionally protected free speech.”
With such a push-and-pull debate, the idea surfaces that an attempt to stifle others’ opinions is itself a form of rightful free speech. The issues of racism and sexism are intricately tied to the subject of free speech, and they are the issues around which we often see the topic come up. The free speech and freedoms of expression of minority groups have been historically targeted, with current movements attempting to turn this reality around. I’ve always questioned exactly where my opinions come from – would I have a different take on this issue if I weren’t white? Probably, and all of us should take a good look at what our own biases might be and attempt to understand how they might influence our decision-making. Yet we cannot ignore the reality that campus censorship, however inadvertent, is alive and real. Free speech, as a concept, should not impinge on the fundamental rights of others to freely think, question, and speak their opinions, assuming no direct or violent harm, yet this is exactly what is happening today.
There seems to be a consensus that the millennial generation is trending toward wiping colleges clean of any ideas or speech that may offend them, and I think this observation has some validity. The introduction of safe spaces is one manifestation of this phenomenon, as are microaggressions, an incredibly subjective and relative concept. While these entities have unquestionable legitimacy in cases of post-traumatic stress sufferers or sexual assault victims, they are leading to certain ideas becoming an unquestioned norm. This is probably due to a fear of backlash that would occur if opposing opinions surfaced, yet this leads to close-mindedness and an unwillingness to explore alternative points of view. This is always a danger. In instances of offense, and even outright bigotry, there will always remain the question of where we draw the line, yet on college campuses, this line is being determined by a stifling of speech – a kind of modern censorship.
Contact Amara McCune at [email protected]