Some Restrictions May Apply
In the effort to protect students, is free speech becoming increasingly limited on campus?
The classroom at Syracuse University was silent aside from the faint echo of a clicking pen. It was a Thursday afternoon in mid-October, early enough that the sunlight still taunted those trapped indoors but late enough where it was beginning to set. Cole Zimmerman, a junior broadcast and digital journalism major, was stuck in his sociology class when the discussion turned to Japanese internment camps. He uncomfortably shuffled the papers on his desk. After exhaling a sigh, he spoke.
“If you’re going to say ‘We didn’t need to bomb Hiroshima,’ well then they didn’t need to bomb Pearl Harbor. You say ‘We didn’t need to go to war in 2001,’ okay, well they didn’t need to crash two planes into New York.”
Immediately, the class erupted.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” chimed one student.
“This is why frats need to go,” bemused another.
“God,” said a third. “Talk about white privilege.”
Zimmerman sunk back into his desk. Choosing to contribute to this discussion had only reaffirmed a decision he made long ago: During his college career, he simply wouldn’t be speaking out in class.
“I usually don’t speak in a lot of my opinionated classes” he says. “Not because I don’t want to, because I do feel at times that having my point of view, when it’s different from everyone else’s, could be beneficial to discussion, but most of the time I feel it just turns into an argument rather than a discussion.”
He is not alone in his decision.
The restriction of free speech on college campuses is a growing epidemic. From self-censorship and disinvitations to even the controversy surrounding safe spaces, universities are becoming what the Brookings Institution referred to as a place to “pay more, get less (free speech).” The article reflected on Murray v. Middlebury, the case surrounding the issue of Charles Murray, a distinguished and controversial social scientist, being barred from speaking and then later assaulted at Middlebury College.
Incidents such as this are not uncommon. As of April 2017, 175 American universities have received a red speech code from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE. As a nonpartisan organization, FIRE’s mission “is to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities,” according to their website. Receiving a red speech code rating maintains that the university has enforced a minimum of one policy that both clearly and substantially results in the restriction of freedom of speech.
Syracuse University is among those 175.
Zach Greenberg was only a freshman at SUNY Binghamton when he first knew he wanted to be a first amendment lawyer. It was springtime. The snow was just beginning to clear when Greenberg witnessed a group of religious fundamentalists. What followed the groups claims of the sin of homosexuality were demands from students, campus media, and even administration to expel these individuals from the grounds.
Despite not agreeing with their message, Greenberg felt shock.
“When I saw this situation unfolding, I thought about one thing: that could be me,” he says. “As a Jewish libertarian, I’m in the religious and political minority almost everywhere I go. Today it’s the fundamentalists, but tomorrow it could me, my friends, or my family speaking about any issue society deems controversial.”
Greenberg has since graduated from Syracuse University’s law program and has gone on to work at FIRE.
Free speech is a burning topic on across America, however, not everyone holds Greenberg’s passion for advocacy. Only 22 percent of American college students believe that their ability to exercise their free speech rights is weaker today than it was 20 years ago, according to a survey done by Gallup, the Knight Foundation, and the Newseum Institute.
On the other side, when questioned about social media in regards to constructive dialogue, 50 percent of Americans agreed that this nation does a poor job of seeking out and listening to different views, while 74 stated that it is far too easy to say things anonymously in this space.
“People love to share Facebook posts or articles and say ‘oh this is good’ or ‘oh this is horrible,’ but never actually want to be more involved than just reading that article,” says Sam Axelrod, a junior music industry major and sociology minor at SU and self-proclaimed liberal. “They’ll post about how a politician did something and then that’s kind of the end of that.”
In the 1964 to 1965 academic year, the Free Speech Movement was in full force at the University of California, Berkeley. Mario Savio stood on the steps of Sproul Hall on Dec. 2 amidst another sit-in hosting 4,000 students, and proclaimed “you’ve got to indicate to the people who run [the machine], to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”
Over 800 students were arrested that night.
The Free Speech Movement was a pivotal time not only for university campuses but for the civil liberties movement in the 1960s as well. It continues to be seen as the beginning of student activism on campuses, an action that continues today but has dwindled down over time.
Berkeley remains the central example of for free speech on college campuses. In Feb. 2017, protests erupted, causing $100,000 worth of damage to the campus as a result of the distain and opposition against the university inviting right-wing commentator Milo Yiannopoulous to speak.
Two months later, Berkeley pulled its invitation to Ann Coulter, another controversial right-wing speaker, in fear of aggravated protests.
Criticisms against Berkeley have been high, not only for invoking violence into their protests but for the university’s willingness to block speakers because of it.
“About eight years ago, the campus republicans brought Ann Coulter and this was when I was the director of the university lecture series,” says Kal Alston, professor of the cultural foundations of education at SU. “I had students come into Crouse-Hinds and say ‘What are you going to do about evil Ann Coulter?’ and I said, ‘We’re not going to do anything. We’ll set up a safe protest space for you, you can encourage people not to go, but we’re not going to keep her off campus.’”
The controversy surrounding the actions at Berkeley’s continues to rise, but while the university’s history maintains its position as a hub for protests, many Millennials instead to adhere to their label of being the “Facebook generation” and may just turn out to be the most silent generation yet. This trend has been defined by the term “slacktivism,” or “actions performed via the Internet in support of a political or social cause but regarded as requiring little time or involvement,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
This generation is so involved in slacktivism, in fact, in a survey of more than 1,000 16–24 year-olds done by Voxburner, nearly 52 percent said they shared articles on their opinions via social media while 74 percent stated that online activism was just as important as its traditional counterpart.
“Universities have always been the ground level places where protests began,” says Roy Gutterman, professor of communications law and director of the Tully Center for Free Speech at SU. “You don’t see a lot of that on college campuses anymore. After Election Day, we saw some protests but that was kind of rare. That was the first we’d seen in a while.”
Despite the decrease in Millennial participation in protest, their involvement is not so much the issue as their right to do so.
For Zimmerman, the proud conservative that he is, he believes in the right to protest, but not when it interferes with his education.
“Our professor let us out early to go participate in the anti-Trump rally after the election and I was outraged,” he recalls. “If you’re going to skip a class to go to do that, that’s fine. That’s your choice, that’s your opinion. But when a professor is urging me to go participate, he’s basically saying ‘this class isn’t really that important. What’s really important is that you go protest the election results.”’
The same day, students across the SU campus received emails from numerous professors stating that if students felt uncomfortable or upset, they could miss class. Others offered up puppies; some encouraged discussion. But most declared the classroom to be a safe space.
The introduction of safe spaces hasn’t been a welcome one. A large issue in their implementation seems to be the controversy surrounding the definition overall.
Formally, safe spaces are defined as being “a place or environment in which a person or category of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The connotation of the term, on the other hand, is met with a different perception.
“Those are places, I suppose, where people go where they’re not going to hear things they don’t want to hear, or not hear things that are going to offend them or hurt their feelings” says Roy Gutterman, professor of communications law and director of the Tully Center for Free Speech at SU. “I see it as sort of an extension of the coddling of people.”
Gutterman is not alone in seeing it as such.
In Aug. 2016, University of Chicago Dean of Students John “Jay” Ellison published a letter to incoming students stating the university’s opposition to implementing safe spaces or trigger warnings on campus. The university instead expected “members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion and even disagreement,” and that “at times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.” Predictably, their proclamation was met with instant criticism but simultaneously showered with praise.
“I was torn,” says Alston, who previously worked as a philosophy professor at the University of Chicago before transitioning to SU. “From my experience there, it was a bloodbath atmosphere. You had to be very aggressive and not be afraid to get bloody in an academic fight.”
During her undergraduate days in the ’70s at Dartmouth University, Alston found herself being one of the only African American women majoring in philosophy. During the first day of classes, she sat in the middle of room, surrounded by white, upper-middle-class male students. Gazing down at her professor, as he lectured on the book Emile, a book on the topic of natural education, the professor proclaimed that women were simply not suited to be philosophers.
Although the campus environment has changed since Alston was last at Dartmouth, proclamations like this continue to take place.
“This isn’t just about students. This is about everyone,” says Diane Wiener, director of the disability cultural center at SU. “Faculty members ought not to be saying because of ‘free speech’ in front of a room of students, ‘because of you we had to move our classroom because the other classroom wasn’t as accessible. A professor did that to a student in front of all of their peers.”
Wiener further acknowledges that she believes that it is the word “safe” that makes safe spaces problematic. She explains that it promises a construct that is unrealistic. Instead, she recommends adopting the idea of “safer people, safer spaces,” a mantra that has come out of SU’s LGBT Resource Center.
“Safe spaces lead to a situation that is very black and white and doesn’t allow for any bipartisanship nor does it allow for the other side to speak,” says Bri Cicero, junior journalism and pre-law dual major at Temple University. “It reinforces what students already know. We’re in college to learn and being exposed to different, diverse opinions.”
Regardless of their views, conservative or liberal, or their status, student or professor, the majority seems to agree: The concept of safe spaces is simply too vague and too restrictive to provide benefit to the mission of higher education.
“I believe that the classroom is the micro-level of the congressional assembly,” says Dakota Wong, graduate of Monroe Community college and 13F Forward Observer in the U.S. Army. “Because of that, we don’t need safe spaces. We need open spaces. If we become too busy protecting the students, who protects a student’s right to learn?”