Free Speech: Conditions Apply

“Want equality? Curtail free speech” proclaimed the headline of a recent article on a prominent New Zealand news site. Though generally couched in euphemism, similar sentiments have become increasingly vogue throughout the free world. In what seems like a cruel twist; the wellspring of such notions are colleges and universities. Despite their antithetical nature to the foundational mission of such institutions -namely education and exposure to new ideas- trigger warnings; safe spaces, macro-aggressions, speech codes, and political correctness have become hallmarks of modern higher education.

The term “hate speech” is often applied to racist, bigoted, or homophobic expression. Sometimes, it is expanded to include completely innocuous disagreements that have the “potential” to offend a particular group of people. In either case, those calling for limitations consider themselves to be the ultimate arbiters of propriety. Such protections are constituted for precisely such a situation wherein one’s expression is vehemently opposed by others. If it were not so, it would serve no purpose. That is not to say that views expressed by certain elements of society are not worthy of contempt.  It simply means that the protection of their rights (or lack thereof) has or undoubtedly will have an impact on the rights of all.

Increasingly, it seems that the only type of diversity lacking in colleges is the intellectual sort. Dr. Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are divided by Politics and Religion and founder of Heterodox Academy, explains that political correctness is not a new phenomenon. What is new is the idea that students are somehow damaged, hurt, traumatized by encountering foreign concepts.

Examples of student activists (and sometimes professors) either pressuring administrations or taking matters into their own hands are not difficult to find.  

In late 2015, a now infamous video went viral showing a faculty member attempting to prevent a student journalist from filming a public protest. She is heard saying, “”Hey, who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here!”

In 2016, both Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos were banned from DePaul University. In the case of the latter, the school imposed excessive security charges on the club hosting the event.

Early this year, riots erupted at UC Berkeley as Antifa vandals attempted and succeeded to shut down another one of Mr. Yiannopoulos’ events. An Op-Ed in the student newspaper subsequently attempted to justify the group’s actions by claiming that the conservative provocateur was perpetrating a form of violence on them by discussing his ideas.  

Most recently, a lecture by Heather McDonald was shut down by a group of Black Lives Matter protesters. The protesters reportedly believed McDonald had “no right to speak”. The event descended into chaos as the activists began shouting “black lives matter”, “America was never great”, and “bull****”.

Accompanying outright suppression is a new wave of infantilization. Students increasingly demand to be treated like children rather than adults.

A group of students at Brown University were so upset by a debate about campus sexual assault that they organized a “safe space” for those who were too traumatized by the event. The room contained cookies, coloring books, bubbles, therapeutic music, and a video of puppies playing. One of the students reportedly visited the debate but returned to the safe space. She said, “I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs.” Such spaces are now ubiquitous on campuses across the country. Those who choose to participate in the activities voluntarily are obviously free to do so. However, their label, safe-space suggests that the surrounding spaces (areas where ideas can be freely criticized and facts matter more than feelings) are somehow unsafe.

This leakage into the public arena was demonstrated by a Yale student who shouted at and berated the master of Silliman College because the associate headmaster sent an email to the student body making the highly unreasonable proposition that students should not be to bothered about offensive Halloween costumes. In the video of the incident, the student is seen hurling expletives at the educator. She demands that the college be a safe space. At one point, she says, “It is not about creating an intellectual space… It is about creating a home here”.

“If the arguments of the present chapter are of any validity, there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered,” so states John Stuart Mill in the second chapter of his classic work, On Liberty.

Unfortunately, such views are no longer held in such high esteem.

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