SALT LAKE CITY — University campuses have long held themselves up bastions protecting a debate of conflicting ideas and opinions in a constant quest for truth. But recent events and surveys today show administrators and many students believe there are limits to that free-flow of speech.
A recent Brookings survey shows 44 percent of college-attending millennials believe offensive speech isn’t protected by the First Amendment, although the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it does. This misunderstanding may be at the root of demonstrations on college campuses seeking to cancel events that feature speakers whose controversial viewpoints the protesting students disagree with.
Just this month, students protested conservative commentator Ben Shapiro’s speech on microagressions at the University of California Berkeley. Though the protestors weren’t violent, as has happened at other events, nine people were arrested — three of which were carrying banned weapons. At the University of Utah, students also took to protesting Shapiro’s upcoming speech on Wednesday.
While administrators and students say their motives are to ensure campus safety and avoid scenes like the provocative march by white supremecists that took place at the University of Virginia in August and vandalism at Berkekley earlier this year, civil liberty advocates and experts say administrators are too often mishandling student concerns and overreacting in a way that endorses government censorship.
“Restricting such speech may be attractive to college administrators as a quick fix to address campus tensions,” said the ACLU. “But real social change comes from hard work to address the underlying causes of inequality and bigotry, not from purified discourse.”
Ari Cohn, the director for the Individual Rights Defense Program for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said when students push campus administration to cancel a speaker they disagree with, they are also shutting off an essential component of their higher education.
“In order to create new knowledge, to make new discoveries, you have to challenge the status quo, and challenging the status quo is often going to be uncomfortable,” he said. “It’s often going to be offensive.”
Student and administration reactions
In anticipation of Shapiro speaking at the U., a group of students calling themselves Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlan, sat for hours outside university President David Pershing’s office, requesting he cancel the Shapiro’s talk and consider the safety of students.
“We’re trying to pressure the administration as much as we can, so they cancel the event,” said protestor Juan Salazar to KUER, “so that they can show us that they genuinely care for the safety of students.”
Shapiro, along with other conservative commentators, have been viewed as controversial for their far-right viewpoints. Some people say Shapiro and other alt-right speakers spread ideas of racism, sexism and other hateful ideology, according to Time.
But the group Young Americans for Freedom at the U. believes univerisities are liberal leaning, and their campus needs to give voice to conservative voices.
“Everyone deserves a voice no matter where you come from, who you are, what you believe in,” said Clark, the group’s chairman. “More dialog is always the answer, not less.”
When Shapiro spoke on the University of Utah campus, he said he thought it was pathetic that college campuses had to up security so much when a conservative speaker spoke.
But school administrators have reason to be concerned about campus safety when controversial speakers are invited. Earlier this year at Berkeley, alt-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulous was slated to speak, but the university cancelled the event when antifa protesters began breaking windows and starting fires in the streets to protest the speech.
Just last weeked, Yiannopoulous was scheduled to speak at Berkeley’s Free Speech Week, but the event was cancelled because organizers couldn’t meet deadlines for renting indoor venues, according to USA Today. Refusing to be silenced, Yiannopoulous planned his own event where he gave a brief speech.
In light of violence and protests at other universities where conservative speakers come to campus, the U. has been working with police to make sure the event is safe for everyone. University staff attended Shapiro’s Berkeley event this month to observe the crowds in order to get an idea of what they would possibly face.
That type of preparation is how universities should respond to potentially divisive speakers and events on campus, according to Cohn, to balance the obligations of keeping students safe while fostering an environment of free expression. He also recommended administrators help students select venues with room for counter-protesters, and teach students how to constructively challenge those they disagree with.
For more than a decade, the foundation has been writing letters to college presidents from community colleges to Ivy League universities reminding them of the rights of students representing diverse political and religious views to express themselves on campus. In some cases, the written reminders have escalated to threats of legal action.
Since 2000, the foundation has kept track of how many times students have tried to cancel a university speaker event. According to the database, politically left-learning students have tried to disinvite speakers more than twice the number of times that right-leaning students have. The political views of the protesting students were based on their statements and organizations they are affiliated with.
The First Amendment on college campuses
In addition to Cohn’s suggestions to preserving the safe exchange of ideas at universities, John Palfrey, author of “Safe Space, Brave Spaces: Diversity and Free Expression in Education,” suggested colleges should invite a variety of speakerswith competing viewpoints ensures no one group controls the popular discussion and creates an opportunity for students to learn how to discuss and understand opposing viewpoints.
While the First Amendment states “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech,” there are some exceptions when it comes to universities.
According to the ACLU, the First Amendment protects offensive speech, but it does not protect threats or speech that creates a hostile environment for students.
Students can protest speakers who use offensive speech, but when students try to get university administration to cancel an event before giving a speaker the chance to speak, students are just speculating that the speech will cause a hostile environment. If students are successful in getting university administration to cancel a speaker, the students and administration are essentially ignoring the idea that a univeristy is a place of free exchange of ideas in a search for truth.
Trying to get speakers to change their language is not a threat to free speech, but forcing them into silence through intimidation or cancelling an event is a threat to free speech, according to Thomas Healy, author of “The Great Dissent” on free speech in America, in his article in The Atlantic.
“Under our free speech tradition,” Healy said, “the crudest and least reasonable forms of expression are just as legitimate as the most eloquent and thoughtful.”