By Editorial at USA Today
Give leaders at the University of Chicago an “A” for standing up for much-beleaguered freedom of speech on campus, and hand an “F” to many of the nation’s colleges and universities for running in the opposite direction.
In recent years, the assault on campus free speech has often been led by an unlikely source: the students whose predecessors a generation ago were at the vanguard of debate and protest. Sometimes the motive is the usual suspect, liberal political correctness that seeks to scrub colleges of any conservative ideas. But recently, a desire by students to protect themselves and others from speech they consider hurtful is driving new assaults on academic freedom and freewheeling debate.
Just as children raised in overly clean houses devoid of bacteria become more vulnerable to allergies and asthma, many of today’s college students — protected by “helicopter parents” — have become fearful of anything that could make them or their friends uncomfortable. President Obama criticized such oversensitivity at a town hall meeting in Des Moines on Monday, saying he disagreed with college students who “have to be coddled and protected from different points of view. … That’s not the way we learn.”
Yet college administrators are often too happy to oblige their fragile students with speech codes, speech zones, disinvitations of controversial speakers and heavy-handed sanctions on anyone who dares to defy the strict rules — rules that seldom stand up to legal scrutiny when someone challenges them in court. More than half of437 institutions surveyed last year by FIRE, a free-speech advocacy group, had restrictive speech codes; one in six confined anything that smacked of students’ free expression to a special zone, often some out-of-the-way patch of campus land.
In January, the University of Chicago revolted against this dangerous trend, reaffirming its commitment to “completely free and open discussion of ideas,” even when some or even most members of the community find the ideas “offensive, unwise, immoral or wrong-headed.” The rationale? University President Hanna Holborn Gray put it well: “Education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think.”
To underscore how far universities have strayed from that goal, in the eight months since Chicago’s policy statement, just two institutions have followed suit: Purdue University, the only public school to do so, and Princeton. Now, FIRE, the free-speech group, has launched a campaign to encourage more universities to join.
It won’t be easy, given the lengths to which university leaders and students have gone to clamp down on ideas they find offensive or hurtful. Among the most ludicrous concepts is “trigger warnings,” where professors are expected to advise students in advance that a book or lesson might trigger a traumatic reaction. Targeted classics have included The Great Gatsby, in which a Rutgers student found “abusive and misogynist violence.” At law schools, student organizations have asked criminal law teachers to warn classes that a lesson on rape law might trigger traumatic memories, and some students want questions on rape law excised from tests, for fear it will upset them.
Supporters of such restrictions argue that they are somehow differentiating hate speech or disturbing speech from protected speech. But one of the great things about democracy is that it protects the right to speak even when the words spoken offend or hurt.
Practically speaking, this war on free speech does students a disservice by shielding them from the real world, where they won’t be able to silence co-workers and bosses whose speech they dislike. If students aren’t smart enough or mature enough to understand the values of free speech, it’s up to institutions in the business of education to teach them.