Ian McEwan’s Message to College Graduates: Protect Offensive Speech

May 19, 2015

While commencement speakers across the nation share their wisdom and advice with their audiences, one speaker at Dickinson College chose to deliver a very specific charge this year: Protect free speech.

Ian McEwan, an award-winning English novelist, urged Dickinson graduates to uphold freedom of expression, which “sustains all the other freedoms we enjoy.” He invited the graduates to join noted free speech advocates ranging back to John Milton by “us[ing] your fine liberal education to preserve for future generations the beautiful and precious but also awkward, sometimes inconvenient and even offensive culture of freedom of expression we have.” He called for a renewed respect for those with offensive views, both inside and outside of academia.

McEwan’s impassioned defense of free speech could not have come at a better time, as colleges are riddled with tiny free speech zones, restrictive speech codes, and calls to disinvite controversial commencement speakers. He specifically criticized campus intolerance of “inconvenient” speakers and the blatant disregard for academic freedom in higher education. The Huffington Post recapped his address, accentuating the temptation to suppress disagreeable speech:

“It can be a little too easy sometimes to dismiss arguments you don’t like as hate speech or to complain that this or that speaker makes you feel disrespected,” McEwan said. “Being offended is not to be confused with a state of grace; it’s the occasional price we all pay for living in an open society.”

Although McEwan’s call to safeguard freedom of expression was directed at graduating students, professors also must grapple with demands for “trigger warnings” from their students. Trigger warnings are statements or disclosures that certain writings or discussions include content that may “trigger” traumatic responses in some individuals. Lori Horvitz, a professor of Literature and Language at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, asks in The Guardian why books should contain such warnings when such alerts don’t exist outside of academia. She wonders how these warnings can prepare students to be “citizens of this uncomfortable and unpredictable world” where they won’t have the “luxury and privilege of receiving ‘trigger warnings’ before being exposed to disturbing material about subjects like the Holocaust, lynching, murder and rape.” Exposure to difficult topics may make students uncomfortable but, as Horvitz states, that is where the real learning begins.

Both Horvitz and McEwan are right. Universities must prepare students for the rigorous and robust discussions of the real world. If colleges continue to stifle free expression by punishing offensive speech and mandating trigger warnings, students will be ill-equipped to preserve freedom of expression for future generations.

Zach Greenberg is a FIRE legal intern.

Schools:  Dickinson College