Over the past couple of years, issues regarding the use of free speech and expressing it has become move apparent around the country in colleges and universities. Most college students are considered snowflakes, which means that they have been and still are spoiled and coddled by their parents. These students tend to be easily offended by words and small insults, incapable of tolerating opinions that deviate away from some politically correct belief and unwilling to engage in strong passionate debates.
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This argument is frail and wrong in various ways, and can be offensive when considering the reality of students experiences today.
While there is a substantial reason for concern about the severity of anxiety students undergo today, they are, typically, the least coddled generation of students ever. For instance, 34 percent of students at the University of Washington, are the first in their families to attend college and about a third of its in-state students come from families making less than $40,000 a year (Cauce). In addition, ethnic diversity among college students is higher than ever before.
In contrast, college were once focused and meant for mainly upper-class white men, gender or class coeducation classrooms were not common in universities until the sixties or seventies. Students during those years hardly had their open-mindedness or views tested by difference, because their life was mostly confined within a homogeneous environment where there was not a need for students to deal with true socioeconomic diversity or diversity in general. Furthermore, for an average college student in this era, the pressure to succeed is high due to the cost of failure is much higher. Getting a C from a decent college will no longer automatically lead to a high-paying job in the financial sector.
There is, without a doubt, some traditional perspectives when it comes to social values, besides students are not encouraged to openly express their thoughts in a manner that can be construed as stereotypical, homophobic or prejudice. In more recent years, that view has also regrettably transferred over directing conservative ideologies in general, which is an aspect society should strive to address. Moreover, institutions are typically the greatest place to witness a diverse environment– ethnically, diplomatically, economically in which many attendees have or will soon encounter. They regularly live in a world of differences which was rare, if not unknown of, for college students in the past.
Universities are by their very nature places for discussion and debate of controversial issues. These disputes are undeniably vital to the instructive experience and for growing citizens becoming prepared to participate in democracy. Students should be capable to evaluate a dispute and be prepared to rebuttal or negate. Critically analyzing an argument and the ability to reason for oneself is and ought to be the trademark of a higher-level education.
The reason for a debate and research is to produce light, not just heat. Most individuals with an extensive variety of viewpoints visit schools and do just that. Even more common, students are revealed to numerous, conflicting perspectives on issues of present and enduring interest in class discussions, in books and articles, on class-related chat rooms and message boards, and in coffee shops and residence halls. Such passionate, reasoned debates where the goal is to win on the force of ideas, not by suppressing or drowning out opponents — when there even are opponents (not everything has to be an argument) — commonly occur.
The polarization of recent years has made debates more difficult on topics that have become politicized, such as those related to race, gender or immigration status, but that is not a problem unique to college students. We have to look long and hard to find good examples of tough, incisive yet civil discourse across differences on such topics. Its certainly not something we often see on TV, in social media or in the national political arena.
Given the broader social and political climate, it should come as no surprise then that students and members of our community can falter when they try to have healthy debates on some topics, whether inside or outside the classroom. Engagement in honest, direct dialogue across important differences is rare indeed, but its simply not fair to blame this generation of youth for the fact it seldom happens. Additionally, something often missed whenever theres coverage of a speech shouted down on campus is that those doing the shouting are often not students, faculty or staff members, but organized groups from outside the academy.
Todays college students, like those of generations before them, have their own signature style born of their distinct experiences. They have grown up with a much greater appreciation for the real injury that sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia and other forms of bigotry can inflict on others. They were taught, at home and in school, to not tolerate bullies and to report them to authorities. Some colleges have student conduct codes that explicitly prohibit abuse of others, including harassment, bullying and discrimination. Therefore, it is confusing to many students that speakers can come to campuses and engage in behaviors that students themselves would be disciplined for.
There is a critical reason for including the right to free speech and expression in the very first amendment to our Constitution. It should be abundantly clear that, in recent years, some speakers come to campuses not seeking to discuss difficult topics but instead seeking to create a spectacle to advance their fame and agenda — whether that is selling books or peddling a hateful ideology. Their rancorous approach, and usually their content as well, is clearly intended to provoke a reaction, not produce understanding. They seek to produce heat, not light. They are using colleges as their stages and setting us up as their foils. Indeed, being blocked from speaking is often seen by them as a victory in their efforts to portray themselves as free speech martyrs. Many of their followers try to silence others through doxing and other intimidation, with rarely a word of condemnation from the supposed heroes of free expression.
Why are those who intentionally seek to generate heat, not light, allowed to speak at a university? Their messages often go against the very values of the institutions, and besides, what they have to say is readily available online.
If it is a public university, the answer starts with the First Amendment and subsequent laws and court rulings. Collectively they establish that public institutions cannot discriminate based on the viewpoints expressed, no matter how repugnant. Reasonable time, manner and place restrictions and act to protect public safety can be established, but by law the school cannot do so based on the viewpoint of a speaker.
However, it also goes beyond the legal obligation. Speech by people we persistently disagree with, and that is in fact hateful and repugnant, is the price people pay for democracy and to ensure their own freedom of speech. When the government is given the power to become the arbiter of what views are acceptable, then society has taken a step toward authoritarianism. There is no agreed-upon definition of what speech is hateful; Im reminded of the young man who stood in the heart of a campus with a sign saying Abortion Is a Hate Crime. As recently evidenced, some believe that the simple act of kneeling while the national anthem is played is a sign of disrespect for our country and should be banned.
How does society progress and move forward? I dont pretend to have all the answers, but since I am a student it might not be surprising that the first thing, Id suggest is more education. Weve seen great emphasis on the STEM disciplines, and given their importance to our modern, technological economy, rightfully so but there has been too little emphasis placed on civic education. That leaves students — and far, far too many in our society — unable to answer basic questions like, What institutions must follow the First Amendment? and Why does it protect hate speech? STEM education is vital for a healthy economy. Comprehensive civics education is vital for a healthy democracy. Students need to understand their rights are worth protecting — and to recognize the difference between speakers encouraging true discourse and those seeking self-promotion.
Learning to recognize that difference starts with academic rigor. Faculty are trained to teach students how to investigate subjects with strong policies that question assumptions, rely on evidence, evaluate sources and equip students to assess the credibility of information and the person delivering it.
Second, when there is a controversial speaker, we must find ways to add light to the discussion — or, at the very least, not contribute to the heat. Shutting down speakers elevates their message and frees them from having their ideas scrutinized. Frankly, violence and mayhem only strengthen authoritarian movements. There are many, many ways to stand in opposition to a person you disagree with. As educators, we have a role in encouraging students to do so in such a way that rights are respected. To accomplish that goal, our communities can and should engage in counterprogramming, creating alternative events and gathering spaces, signaling to students that while everyone has the right to speak, our communities can come together in rejecting hateful messages.
As leaders, we have the power of the bully pulpit to condemn offensive ideas even when we must also defend a speakers right to express them. What we must not do is stand silent — the very reason we defend someone elses right to speak is because we must treasure and exercise our own. Educators have the opportunity to teach the next generation of leaders and citizens that more speech — and more understanding — are the tools with which to preserve and defend their rights.
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