In this Feb. 1, 2017, file photo, a fire set by demonstrators protesting a scheduled speaking appearance by Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos burns on Sproul Plaza on the University of California - Berkeley campus. UC Berkeley police took a hands-off approach to protesters on the campus when violent rioters overtook a largely peaceful protest against a controversial speaker. But that response is being questioned as demonstrators become increasingly hostile and politics are more polarized. (AP Photo/Ben Margot, file)
By Alicia N. Abney, Middle Tennessee State University
Last year, when working to complete my Educational Specialist Degree, my instructor brought up the riots that took place at University of California – Berkeley when a student group invited Milo Yiannopoulos to visit for his “Dangerous Faggot” tour. The known British far-right provocateur shouted phrases associating feminism and the recent #MeToo movement with a cancer diagnosis, derogatory and bigoted comments directed at homosexuals, and phrases that were openly racist. My instructor asked a simple question: Should Yiannopoulous be allowed to present on public campus grounds after invitation? I immediately said yes and, at the very same time, my classmate sitting right beside me said no. She looked at me in shock. Her belief that Yiannopoulous should not be allowed to speak on campus is one of empathy, inclusiveness, and indicates good moral intentions. However, it betrays a serious lack of historical knowledge regarding the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States that is all too prevalent among campus students and administrators. While I understand her reasoning, I do believe that Yiannopoulous has every right to speak on campus after receiving the invitation because the campus is public grounds. Despite his abhorrent views, Yiannopoulous is entitled to First Amendment rights as an invited speaker to a public university. Moreover, the students that invited him are entitled to listen.
Examples of free-speech ignorance on public college campuses in particular are myriad. News reports detail a campus free-speech crisis, like riots and violence caused by inflammatory speakers invited to campus, or questionable men of religion holding hurtful signs while yelling bigoted remarks to students traveling to and from class, or student videos capturing a controversial lecture. This coverage of free speech, whether it be on cable news or in highly respected higher-education sources, offers readers and viewers a brief picture of what is taking place on campuses across the country. Instead of campus administration, faculty, and staff using these examples as teachable moments for the entire campus community, issues about free speech are glossed over. Often, security measures are taken for student safety, a letter from top administration is sent to the campus community, and then the event falls into yesterday’s news and everyone seems to move on to the next headline. It has become second nature for society to point the finger and blame other factors; the “snowflake,” the entitled and highly offended generation, for example. It is easy for campus administrators to pass the buck of blame rather than take responsibility to better inform and educate students about free speech, but I argue that now is the time to stop taking the easy road.
The public university is a marketplace of diverse, free-thinking, creative, and innovative ideas. It is a place to ask questions about long-standing beliefs. The university is a place for students to express ideas, to debate with peers and professors, and to learn and evolve from questioning their thoughts and ideas. It is a safe place to ask questions and to learn from diverse perspectives.
Censoring speech and diverse ideas, regardless of how outrageous or abhorrent ideas and speech may be, removes the opportunity for the safe exchange of ideas to learn and to grow from others. On this topic, Mill writes, “if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.”  Additionally, Williams writes, “[Mill] asserted that the problem with any effort to suppress nonconforming viewpoints is that the guardians of orthodoxy wrongfully presume their own infallibility. What now appears unorthodox or even false may later turn out to be both widely accepted and true.” Mill encourages civil discourse as an opportunity to learn from others. Unless individuals ask questions, they will not learn and grow, academically or otherwise. For those who refuse to consider other ideas, they risk never understanding perspective and empathy and essentially assume their own infallibility.
Many fought against the beliefs and speech of Martin Luther King Jr. and other great leaders of the past. Had he and other great leaders been silenced due to their unwanted beliefs, great changes and growth would have never taken place in the United States. Now, this is not equating the great words of wise leaders of the past to those of Yiannopoulous and other provocateurs, but it does suggest that silencing one individual can lead to the silencing of others. Silencing opposition based on disagreement of truths eliminates the opportunity to learn of real truth.
The public university is a place where thoughts and ideas are discussed and questions are asked. The lack of understanding regarding free speech could be solved if students understood the importance of free speech and why speech is not censored. For this to be solved, administration must take responsibility for teaching tolerance, thinking critically, and teaching freedom of expression. Also, the campus community must learn to be thoughtful consumers of information and to question ideals, as FBI Director Christopher Wray recommended when he urged citizens “to be savvier consumers of the news”. Students need to know that it is necessary to ask hard questions in the classroom and on campus to bolster the marketplace of ideas. Failing to communicate this to students leads to controversies like the one observed at Georgia Southern University.
Following a protest where students burned Jennine Capo Crucet’s novel, Make Your Home Among Strangers, President Marrero issued a statement to the public condemning students for burning their required book for class. However, he dismissed the call to punish students as their actions fell within the students’ constitutional rights on a public university. The university stated, “While it’s within the students’ First Amendment rights, book-burning does not align with Georgia Southern’s values, nor does it discourage the civil discourse and debate of ideas.” Essentially, administrators found a policy to use so that students would not be punished – case closed, filed away, on to the next. Administrators were most likely relieved that they did not have a bigger protest on their hands to “deal with.” Students likely smirked because they got away with burning a required book that they purchased. Do I believe students should be punished for their actions? No. I do, however, believe the administration missed a great teachable moment about why the students’ behavior was inappropriate and why they were not punished.
At what point did administration discuss with the students their rights, what it means to have civil discourse, and the benefits of debating cultural ideas on campus? From what readers know based on news transcripts and a now removed video, there was very little discourse between a small group of students (those that decided to burn the book they purchased for class) and Capo Crucet. While Capo Crucet had the podium as the keynote speaker, there was very little discussion between this small group of students and the author. Essentially, it was accusations from students to the author and her experiences. Were students, or even Capo Crucet, racists? It doesn’t matter.
What matters is that administration did not take this opportunity to teach students the true meaning of civil discourse. They did not take the opportunity to explain why discussion – especially discussion between opposing viewpoints – is important and necessary in a democratic society. They did not take the opportunity to explain First Amendment rights and why Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Expression are so important, not only now, but for all of the history of the United States.
As higher-education administrators, can we really believe that a simple statement during Freshman Orientation (assuming students attend orientation) regarding freedom of expression and First Amendment rights is enough? Do we really expect handing a student a copy of the U.S. Constitution will provide them with all of the information regarding civil discourse and what it means to be in a marketplace of ideas? I am an Academic Advisor and I know that even my brightest students will run in my office in a panic two weeks after Priority Registration (a scheduled two weeks each semester in which only currently enrolled students may register for the following term) stating they forgot the classes we discussed, candidacy requirements, and their registration date and time (despite having all of this information on hand and/or online). As administrators, we consider student development theories and how students grow cognitively and assume responsibility, providing excuses for their forgetful behavior and immaturity. But, at the same time, we provide a blanket freedom of expression/civil discourse comment during orientation (or on a new student website that we expect them to read) and then we are surprised when they do not understand these complex constitutional rights and what essentially the foundation of higher education is.
President Marrero’s statement regarding freedom of expression was accurate and necessary. Many applaud Marrero’s statement and I can agree with their praise to protect Free Speech and freedom of expression on campus. There is absolutely no need for punishment to any parties involved in this incident. There is, however, a major learning opportunity that was missed.
We are no longer living in a time in which students enter the great big world of higher education, are handed a copy of the U.S. Constitution (a well-known document they learned about and reviewed every year of elementary and secondary school), and go on their merry way through the ivory towers. The terms First Amendment and Free Speech are not unfamiliar terms – they have at least heard them. But students do not understand the meaning of their constitutional rights, why these rights are important, and the entirety of free speech.
Today’s incoming student brings with them 12 years of anti-bullying initiatives, zero-tolerance policies, and some even mandatory uniforms (to establish same-ness). Unfiltered differing opinions from faculty, their peers, and the random protester on campus shocks them and often enrages them. They often FaceTime or send video through one of countless apps of the unfamiliar behavior to their parents, leading to parent outrage that spreads like wildfire on social media.
In discussing how public institutions are doing too little to combat misinformation in our society and how institutions are spending far too much time being moderate, they miss opportunities to teach critical thinking, logic, and reasoning. Public institutions need to make a better effort in deliberately teaching students about their constitutional rights and how those rights are used within society. Institutions need to teach students how to appropriately reason with conflicting ideas and faculty need to continue to push controversial topics relevant to their class and teach students how to disagree appropriately. This needs to start the minute students arrive on campus.
Most public institutions host some sort of new student orientation. During the orientation, administration and/or orientation leaders must discuss freedom of expression and Free Speech. This discussion needs to be much more than, “This institution is a marketplace of ideas and freedom of expression is welcomed.” Today’s student needs concrete examples (see Purdue University’s Free Speech program during Boiler Gold Rush orientation for new students). Orientation leaders must clearly explain free speech, hate speech, and why freedom of expression (despite how abhorrent it may be) is welcome at each respective public institution. Today’s students are so far removed from major controversial events in the United States (i.e., Vietnam War protests, the Civil Rights era, Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches) that they do not understand the slippery slope of censorship. This needs to be explained in great detail.
Many higher education professionals will note that orientation is often overwhelming for students and students often forget or leave behind what they learned during the beginning of the school year. The conversation about freedom of expression and Free Speech needs to continue, constantly. If an event takes place on campus, just as it did at Georgia Southern University, faculty and administration must embrace the opportunity to discuss student rights on a public institution as well as First Amendment rights, rather than releasing a public statement and moving on to the next day’s events.
Chemerinsky warns that “the value of free speech is seen as too abstract, and the harms of hateful speech more real.” We should heed this warning given that today’s post-secondary student confuses morality with legality, which has led to known protests and riots at Middlebury College, University of California – Berkeley, DePaul University, and many others across the United States. In September 2017, Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Virginia chapter, was heckled from the stage during a speech at the College of William & Mary, a public institution. After a march of alt-right demonstrators through the nearby University of Virginia’s campus in August that lead to a fatality the following day, Gastañaga was invited to speak to students to discuss free speech and the legal way to protest. Instead, Gastañaga was removed from the stage by a student group shouting, “Your free speech hides beneath white sheets” and “ACLU, you protect Hitler, too.” The student group was profoundly upset that the ACLU, an organization that has a long history of defending the rights of all individuals, but mostly minorities, supported the alt-right’s right to demonstrate in Charlottesville, Va. The student group believed that the ACLU was hiding “behind ‘the rhetoric of the First Amendment’ to defend white supremacists.” The student group followed with “the ACLU … believe[s] that legality determines morality.” ACLU has a history of supporting the First Amendment (remember the Nazi march through a predominately Jewish neighborhood in Skokie, Ill., in 1978?), regardless of morality. The two are very different and today’s students are struggling to see the difference – hence a student group shutting down speech in the fight for free speech. The hate speech of the alt-right groups demonstrating in Charlottesville is tangible, physical evidence of racism and hate, and something that is morally wrong and should be condemned. Abstract free speech is intangible, not something to physically observe, making it far more difficult for students to understand.
Institutions do not need to wait for a controversial event to take place on campus, but they can discuss freedom of expression through a number of ways: course work, campus events, etc. The institution as a marketplace of ideas should be constantly reiterated to the entire campus community with a strong defense on why the university encourages freedom of expression. Our students need to learn how to listen to others and evaluate other ideas. They need to learn how to construct their own ideas and to think critically and logically. When the so-called campus preacher shows up with his sign stating that we are all hell-bound, students should know without question that the weird guy with the sign has a right to be on campus. When a group on campus invites a controversial speaker to campus, it is crucial to understand that some of our great leaders were once controversial. As members of the campus community, we do not want to censor his or her controversial speech. To do so potentially leads to the censorship of many. It is imperative that this is a constant conversation and a driving initiative year after year.
Bauer-Wolf, Jeremy. "Free Speech Advocate Silenced." Inside Higher Ed. Last modified October 6, 2017. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/10/06/william-mary-students-who-shut-down-aclu-event-broke-conduct-code.
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Fisher, Lauren. "'This Is Where We Are, America': After a Latina Author Talks about Race at Georgia Southern U., Students Burn Her Book." The Chronicle of Higher Education. Last modified October 11, 2019. https://www.chronicle.com/article/This-Is-Where-We-Are/247337.
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- John Stuart Mill, "Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion," in On Liberty, Utilitarianism and Other Essays, ed. Mark Philp and Frederick Rosen (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015), 19.
- Leonard Williams, "John Stuart Mill," The First Amendment Encyclopedia, last modified 2009, accessed August 1, 2019, https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/1258/john-stuart-mill.
- Aaron Blake, "Christopher Wray, Basically: Don't Listen to Trump's Ukraine Conspiracy Theories," The Washington Post, December 10, 2019, Politics, [Page #], accessed December 12, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/12/10/christopher-wray-basically-dont-listen-trumps-ukraine-conspiracy-theories/.
- Lauren Fisher, "'This Is Where We Are, America': After a Latina Author Talks about Race at Georgia Southern U., Students Burn Her Book," The Chronicle of Higher Education, last modified October 11, 2019, accessed December 12, 2019, https://www.chronicle.com/article/This-Is-Where-We-Are/247337.
- Steve Kolowich, "There Is No Campus Speech Crisis," The Chronicle of Higher Education, last modified September 2, 2018, accessed November 15, 2019, https://www.chronicle.com/article/There-Is-No-Campus-Speech/244422.
- Jeremy Bauer-Wolf, "Free Speech Advocate Silenced," Inside Higher Ed, last modified October 6, 2017, accessed December 10, 2019, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/10/06/william-mary-students-who-shut-down-aclu-event-broke-conduct-code.
- Bauer-Wolf, "Free Speech," Inside Higher Ed.
- Bauer-Wolf, "Free Speech," Inside Higher Ed.