To Defend Free Speech or Not?

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University campuses are subject to debates across the country. Students are speaking out against racial injustice revealed in unwelcoming, sometimes hostile environments on college campuses. But to some, their demands have gone too far. Are the protestors silencing free speech, or are they just trying to be heard? And are the universities responding by defending free speech, or by suppressing it? This paper attempts to discuss these questions.

Review of literature

The freedom of speech has been defined by the New World Encyclopedia as the right to express oneself, either orally or in writing, without fear of governmental restraint or retribution. In the Unites States, this freedom is protected by the 1st Amendment to the Constitution, and is considered essential to the strength of the government. At the core of 1st Amendment concerns is the protection of expression that is critical of government policies. As with other civil liberties, the freedom of speech does not exist in a vacuum. Limitations of freedom of speech arise when it comes to the violation of the rights of others. Freedom of speech is not protected when it comes to expressions involving slander, harassment, obscenity, subversion, or criminal conduct (Funk & Wagnalls, 2016).
The concept of freedom of speech developed gradually due to societal problems of the Middle-Ages.

For example, in England, freedom of speech emerged due to struggles for individual liberties and democratic government starting in the 16th century. In France, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was issued after the French Revolution in 1789 which included the right of freedom of speech to citizens. In the U.S., freedom of speech was included in the Constitution of the United States, starting with that of Virginia in 1776. It was abridged by congress in 1798 by the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts which in which it was deemed illegal to stand-in opposition to the government. During the industrialization era, problems of free speech were connected with unionization. During World War I, academic freedom was impaired and the freedom of speech was abridged in cases of foreigners, labor organizers, pacifists, and radicals. In Europe, freedom of speech was abolished by the totalitarian governments of some countries. Freedom of speech regained strength with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 when it was declared as a fundamental right by the United Nations. Since then, the courts became protective of this concept (Funk & Wagnalls, 2016).

In 2014, two fraternity students were expelled from the University of Oklahoma after an online video was streamed showing them singing a racist song on a bus. The president of the university explained that the two students were expelled because of their leadership role in leading a racist and exclusionary chant which created a hostile educational environment for others. Several argue that the racist chant was protected under the Constitution (Papandrea, 2017). In 2017, Latino students at Cornell University complained to the school that fraternity brothers were heard shouting that they wanted a wall be built around the Latino Living Center on campus. The Latino students demanded an apology and that the fraternity undergo diversity training.

They also asked that the school recognizes that there is an environment of discrimination on campus. The university expressed concerns about the incident but also recognized the right of open expression. A Latino student responded to the university statement by stating: Free speech is not speech that is aimed to hurt; free speech that dehumanizes is not free (Steinmetz, 2017).
These two incidents catch a glimpse of what is happening on university campuses. Campuses across the country are divided as students and university personnel are trying to fight against discrimination while preserving freedom of speech. Censoring and even punishing students who engage in offensive speech is on the rise among universities (Papandrea, 2017).

Universities are struggling more than ever to create a balance between adhering to the First Amendment as it applies to the freedom of speech while creating inclusive communities. The pressure to punish offensive speech increases as does the criticism to this pressure. With the development in technology, complications as to whether and when a university should or can punish students for their online offensive activities. Instead of appreciating the traditional role that the universities play in sharing and discussing ideas, students, alumni, and the public seem to think that whenever a college tolerates offensive speech, it is also endorsing these viewpoints (Papandrea, 2017).
The Supreme Court has held that flag burning, public displays insulting American institutions, and published documents critical of America and the government, in particular, are constitutional exercises of free speech and that they are therefore protected from government-imposed limits. Also, the Supreme Court has held that so-called reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on free speech are constitutional. For example, keeping potentially violent protestors separated while they demonstrate at the same location is one of those vital constitutional limits a government can place on free speech. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions shared that thirty-three percent of public universities have speech codes that constrict free speech . . . under the First Amendment. He warned schools and their leaders to ensure that freedom of expression be protected. As Sessions said, speech is under assault on college campuses. According to Sessions, those assaults are deemed unconstitutional (Young, T., 2017).

Friedersdorf (2016) also shared that free speech is threatened on campus. He cited Professor Shaun Harper, head of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania who noted that there has been a significant increase in the demand for our campus climate work. Friedersdorf summarized examples of demands to punish speech on college campuses: The Wall Street Journal reported a survey of 800 college students that found 51 percent favored speech codes. Yale protestors formally asked the university to fire two professors in residence life because they were upset by an email one of them wrote. Amherst students called for a speech code sanctioning a student for making an All Lives Matter poster. Student activists at Duke asked for disciplinary sanctions for students who attend culturally insensitive parties, etc. At Emory, student activists asked that student evaluations include a field to report microaggressions to help ensure that there are repercussions or sanctions, and that the social network Yik Yak be banished from campus.

Another narrow area of campus expression that is under threat: The formal speech. In 2015 alone, Robin Steinberg was disinvited from Harvards law school, and Suzanne Venker from Williams College. The rapper Big Sean was almost disinvited from Princeton at the request of students. Efforts are seen to censor speakers based on their viewpoints. Free speech on campus is threatened from a dozen directions. It is threatened by administrators, and students who are intolerant of disagreements in point of views. It is threatened by activists asking for speech codes and sanctions for professors or classmates who disagree with them. It is threatened by people who push to disinvite speakers because of their viewpoints and those who shut down events to prevent people from speaking. Although free speech advocates believe that viewpoints need to be heard before getting rejected, others say that if viewpoints invalidate the humanity of some people then restrictions should apply (Ulrich, 2017).

While there is a recent focus on reducing/eliminating hate speech on campuses, first amendment advocates are accusing universities and colleges of being squeamish about exposing students to ideas that make them feel uncomfortable. In a poll published by William Buckley, 50% of students said they often felt intimidated to offer views that differ from their classmates or professors. Sixty-three percent of students said that they thought political correctness was a problem on campus, while 50% said they favor their school banning political cartoons on campus that criticize a particular religion or ethnicity. Ron Krotoszynki, professor of law at the University of Alabama shared that Universities need to secure an environment where it protects its core missions of teaching, learning and research, but at the same time, universities can't maintain that environment without regard to First Amendment rights (Madhani & Yu, 2015).


The university is the place where students should be challenged, and where everything they know should be put into question. Being subjected to controversial issues is essential for them to think critically. Experiences they face allows them to grow. Universities will not do students a favor by overprotecting them from the real world. It represents a transition stage into adulthood, where students start to analyze and take a stance about what is out-there, what is waiting for them after graduation. The university setting is a place where students from different backgrounds and values come together and learn from each other. The experiences they face allow them to question preconceptions they have and decide for themselves what to believe in and how to proceed in the face of social and controversial issues. The Supreme Court has supported freedom of speech as essential to the atmosphere of the college/university.

Nonetheless, racist speech does do psychological harm to students who already are feeling oppressed. Alienation, depression, and anger are consequences of such speech. Millennials are being described as a generation of snowflakes, quick to melt like snow in the sun when challenged. Some argue that the university setting provides a safe space for victims of racism and/or oppression to fight back and educate others about their experiences and the harm that racism does in general. Other believe that victims will get more alienated thinking that the university is just another place supporting racism. So, what is the ethical thing to do and what should universities do in the face of these different point of views? Some universities have chosen to take action by generating codes of conduct and refuting speeches deemed to create hostility or intimidation towards minority students. Others created codes banning verbal assaults.

The First Amendment does not deny the university the right to identify sanctions when it comes to usage of obscenity, abuse, or defamation. The confusion stands when it comes to defining these words as they apply to universities settings and managing tensions between eliminating racism and protecting students while also protecting their constitutional rights.

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To Defend Free Speech Or Not?. (2019, May 13). Retrieved April 18, 2024 , from

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