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As Fight Over ‘Yik Yak’ App Continues on Campus, Free Speech Remains the Answer

A few months ago, I weighed in on the controversy surrounding the social media app Yik Yak, explaining the folly of proposals by some colleges and universities to shut down the app due to the inflammatory content sometimes posted on it. I noted that when college students are maligned by Yik Yak commentary that is not protected by the First Amendment, defamation lawsuits are preferable to censorship. I also argued that shutting down such social networks only makes them more notorious and thus more appealing to some; that forcing mean-spirited or bigoted speech underground only makes the speakers more extreme and the rest of the public more complacent (as FIRE President Greg Lukianoff has pointed out); and that concerned students should use Yik Yak to spread positive messages about each other and to denounce the mudslinging.

These arguments, of course, have not met with universal agreement. Richard Schneider, president of Vermont’s Norwich University, recently decided to block access to Yik Yak on the university’s computer network. Although the move was admittedly little more than symbolic, since students can still access the app on their smartphones and elsewhere, Schneider didn’t let that stop him: “I just know that it is hurting my students right now. They are feeling awkward, they are feeling hurt, they are feeling threatened." Nor are university administrators the only ones seeking to squeeze Yik Yak; Emory University’s student government recently entertained a proposed resolution calling for the school to ban the app from its wireless network.

Fortunately, at least some students understand the pitfalls of such attempts at censorship. The editorial board of Syracuse University’s campus newspaper, the Daily Orange, recently spoke out against banning Yik Yak. The editors noted that while Yik Yak may play host to various expressions of bigotry and what some would label cyberbullying, eliminating the platform would not address the root causes of these phenomena: “Yik Yak is not the source of offensive speech, it’s merely a platform for it.... The problem is not the anonymous platform, but the people on it.” The editorial correctly identified a limit to the right to free speech, noting that any truly threatening speech on Yik Yak is fair game for lawsuits or criminal investigations. Finally, the editors made the central point that all too often falls on deaf ears in academia: “Limiting free speech is not a solution to offensive speech.” Hopefully, more sensible heads such as these will prevail in the ongoing campus debate over Yik Yak.

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