Speak for Yourself

 To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the
rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.

–Frederick Douglass

It’s unfortunate that college students all across America are waging a war against the First Amendment. For fear of getting their feelings hurt, these students have banded together to stop others from expressing dissenting opinions. Worse still, campuses are playing into these students’ fears and silencing people whose opinions might ‘offend.’ Safe spaces have existed on college campuses for decades, but now they’re expanding like a warm, nurturing, “please Mommy protect me from free speech” blanket that stretches over the entire campus.

From professors who are obligated to use trigger warnings before giving a lecture that might have offensive elements, to college newspapers losing their funding over op-ed pieces that criticize activist movements, to the censoring of Halloween costumes, Higher Education’s mission—to be a bastion for intellectual freedom—is being subverted, mostly by the very students who will be running this country within the next few decades.

I’m all for people feeling comfortable, but college is supposed to prepare people for the real world. There aren’t too many safe spaces and trigger warnings beyond the corridors of Academia. Smart people start a dialogue. Most people ignore offensive remarks and go about living their lives. Stupid people complain about being offended and go on the defensive.

No one is completely sure where safe spaces actually began, though some credit the homosexual community of the late 1980s for creating them. The intention was to create a place where dialogue could occur. People could talk about their opinions without fear of judgement, and then someone with an opposing view could say why they disagreed, or why they agreed.

This was sensible enough given the circumstances at the time, but on college campuses today, the safe space has gotten out of hand. With an unwarranted sense of self-importance and an equally bizarre sense of entitlement, all too many college students believe the entire campus should be their safe space. During a rally protesting free speech regarding Halloween costumes (more on this shortly), one student shouted to one of the masters of Silliman College at Yale, “It’s not your job to create an intellectual space, it’s your job to make a home.” I would argue that not only is it the master’s job to create an intellectual space, the college is literally an intellectual space. Safe spaces have gone from being somewhere people could safely disagree to intellectual prisons that inter everyone whose opinion might be considered offensive.

To underscore the absurdity of this situation in one simple example, at Silliman College right around Halloween, an e-mail went out from the Intercultural Affairs Council asking students to be conscientious about what costumes they wore because their costumes might “offend or belittle others.” In response to this e-mail, Erika Christakis, the Associate Master at Silliman College, wrote her own e-mail to the students, which read, “If you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended.” After this e-mail went out, all hell broke loose. Students began protesting the masters of the school and complaining that they were supposed to make the students feel comfortable, not create an intellectual space. Christakis has been an educator and a writer for most of her life, and she has advocated for free speech even when, and especially when, it is offensive. She even wrote an article for Time criticizing Harvard University for banning a satirical flyer that referenced anti-Semitism, racism, and sexual assault.

This new battle against censorship on campus is not without historical precedent. When the United States was in its formative years, English colonials had strict regulations over speech, condemning anyone who criticized the government. A law in Massachusetts in 1646 brought legal charges against people who denied the immortality of the soul, and in Virginia, denying the Holy Trinity got you the death penalty. After the Revolutionary War and during the writing of the Constitution, a rift separated the Federalists, who argued for a strong federal government, and the Anti-Federalists, who argued for the opposite. People like Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry believed that the early stages of the Constitution placed too much emphasis on a strong federal government. These concerns were largely the reason for why the Bill of Rights was adopted—to limit the power of the federal government.

Astonishingly enough, the First Amendment is under intense pressure on college campuses for some remarkably insubstantial reasons. It states,

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The Wesleyan University student government has decided to challenge the First Amendment. The on-campus newspaper, the Wesleyan Argus, named after the mythological Greek giant with a hundred eyes, was “founded in 1868 and is the country’s oldest twice weekly printed newspaper.” The paper is mainly for on-campus news, but as most papers do, it also features editorials. One such editorial was critical of the Black Lives Matter movement, questioning their motives and the methods they use to deliver their message. As a result, the student government decided to slash the Argus’ budget by more than half after receiving some negative feedback about the article.

Thus, the growing rift over the meaning of one of our founding documents is no longer between Federalists and Anti-Federalists, it’s between freedom of speech and freedom from speech. People like Erika Christakis believe it is important to protect free speech, even if, and especially if, you find it offensive. Then there are the students of Wesleyan and Silliman, who want their respective universities to protect them from speech. Of course, this shift is less about silencing all offensive speech and more about silencing unpopular offensive speech.

This is a very diverse country, with an especially culturally diverse youth. Sure, it’s important to teach students not to intentionally offend, but it’s equally important to teach students not to be unintentionally offended. College must prepare students for the real world, which promises an endless train of intentional and unintentional offenses. Instead of teaching students how to silence those who might have different opinions, universities should focus on teaching students to engage concepts of all kinds and debate them openly and sensibly.

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richard ellisCurrently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Computer Science, Richard Ellis is a 4th generation Colorado native. In his spare time, he is a musician, husband, and father.

Photo By: People of Lancaster