American higher education: Where free speech goes to die
Religion & Liberty Online

American higher education: Where free speech goes to die

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You’ve heard of that mythical place where elephants go to die? Apparently, these giants “know” they are going to die, and they head off to a place known only to them.

Free speech in the United States goes off to die as well, but there is no myth surrounding this. Free speech dies in our colleges and universities. Just ask American Enterprise Institute’s Christina Sommers. Sommers is a former philosophy professor and AEI scholar who recently spoke at Oberlin College. Her speech was excellent, but it apparently frightened the pants off a bunch of students (oh, I probably can’t say that. It likely makes someone feel violated.) They paraded outside the room where Sommers spoke, holding signs invoking “trigger warnings” and announcing a “safe room” where those who found Sommers’ talk too much to handle. Her topic? “What’s Right (And Wrong) With Feminism.” She was harassed and harangued both in-person and online for daring to speak such words.

Kirsten Powers, a Fox News contributor, notes that free speech is anything but on our college campuses. She writes at The Daily Beast that even the mere whiff of something that might possibly offend someone somewhere is stamped out before it even leaves a person’s mouth – the very opposite of free speech. Even edgy comedian Chris Rock has noticed.

Chris Rock told journalist Frank Rich that he had stopped playing college campuses because of how easily the audiences were offended. Rock said he realized some time around 2006 that “This is not as much fun as it used to be” and noted George Carlin had felt the same way before he died. Rock attributed it to “Kids raised on a culture of ‘We’re not going to keep score in the game because we don’t want anybody to lose.’ Or just ignoring race to a fault. You can’t say ‘the black kid over there.’ No, it’s ‘the guy with the red shoes.’ You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.” Sadly, Rock admitted that the climate of hypersensitivity had forced him and other comedians into self-censorship.

What ends up happening is that people on college and university campuses either don’t say exactly what they mean for fear of reprisal, or they end up doing this weird dance of “I meant to say” and “I didn’t mean to offend” and “Oh, just forget about it. I’ll shut up now.”

In December 2014, the president of Smith College, Kathleen McCartney, sent an email to the student body in the wake of the outcry over two different grand juries failing to indict police officers who killed African-American men. The subject heading read “All Lives Matter” and the email opened with, “As members of the Smith community we are struggling, and we are hurting.” She wrote, “We raise our voices in protest.” She outlined campus actions that would be taken to “heal those in pain” and to “teach, learn and share what we know” and to “work for equity and justice.”

Shortly thereafter, McCartney sent another email. This one was to apologize for the first. What had she done? She explained she had been informed by students “the phrase/hashtag ‘all lives matter’ has been used by some to draw attention away from the focus on institutional violence against black people.” She quoted two students, one of whom said, “The black students at this school deserve to have their specific struggles and pain recognized, not dissolved into the larger student body.” The Daily Hampshire Gazette reported that a Smith sophomore complained that by writing “All Lives Matter,” “It felt like [McCartney] was invalidating the experience of black lives.” Another Smith sophomore told the Gazette, “A lot of my news feed was negative remarks about her as a person.” In her apology email McCartney closed by affirming her commitment to “working as a white ally.”

McCartney clearly was trying to support the students and was sympathetic to their concerns and issues. Despite the best of intentions, she caused grievous offense.

As my dad would say, you can’t win for losing.

This is not something to jest about, however. It’s very serious. Colleges, of all places, should be where all ideas get thrown into the mix, hashed out, discussed, debated. Instead, a few people tightly control what passes as dialogue, and everyone else sits with their mouths clamped shut. What was once the essence of the college experience has become a punishable offense. That’s not hyperbole:

At Colorado College, a private liberal arts college, administrators invented a “violence” policy that was used to punish non-violent speech. The consequences of violating a speech code are serious: it can often lead to public shaming, censoring, firings, suspensions, or expulsions, often with no due process.

If someone doesn’t like what you have to say, you can lose your job and reputation, and be opened up to almost unbearable harassment in the social media sphere.

A good college education broadens one’s mind. You hear and discuss things you had not before considered, and learn to debate. In this on-going quest for truth, one learns that while everyone gets to speak their mind, not everyone is right. Once colleges and universities shut down free-flowing discussions of everything from affirmative action to zoology, free speech is dead. Even worse, those students – in a few short years – will take those views of microagression, trigger warnings and safe spaces out into the world with them.

Be careful what you say around them.

Read “How Liberals Ruined College” at The Daily Beast.

Elise Hilton

Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.