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FIRE’s Samantha Harris: Colleges Should Teach Students to Confront Offense Head-On

By December 15, 2014

In recent weeks, FIRE has seen some worrying examples of the phenomenon FIRE President Greg Lukianoff describes in his book Freedom From Speech: students demanding to be shielded from ideas that make them uncomfortable, and colleges and universities ceding to those demands. FIRE Director of Policy Research Samantha Harris responded to these incidents in The Des Moines Register on Saturday, warning that the trend will leave students ill-prepared for life after college and less able to effect the changes they wish to see in the world.

Samantha cites, for example, recent calls for censorship of a provocative art piece at the University of Iowa earlier this month, and requests that final exams at three prestigious law schools be postponed for students experiencing “trauma” due to the results in the Eric Garner and Michael Brown cases. She writes:

More and more, we are pathologizing normal feelings of outrage and offense on college campuses. We now use the vocabulary of post-traumatic stress disorder — trauma, triggers, etc. — to refer to virtually any bad feelings occasioned by controversial events or expression.

This threatens free speech and open debate on campus, and it undermines universities’ presumptive goal of producing leaders capable of taking on the many challenges facing our nation and our world.

Indeed, lawyers are faced with adverse decisions all the time. How will law students who are unable to continue their schoolwork in light of current events grow into lawyers who can continue to represent their clients even after a series of unfavorable rulings?

Samantha argues that students’ emotions should serve to strengthen them as advocates, rather than excusing them from engagement:

Colleges and universities should urge their students to channel feelings of outrage and offense into a resolve to use their intelligence and education to fight for justice and fairness in society. Instead, universities are all too willing to treat offended students as psychologically fragile individuals in need of special accommodations and counseling.

[…]

If we want future generations of Americans to be able to confront injustice in the same way as generations past, we must stop teaching our young people to run from discomfort and offense, and start teaching them how to address it head-on.

Read the rest of Samantha’s piece in The Des Moines Register.