Higher education policy is facing a troubling and undeniably tricky question concerning those certain types of “free” speech that tend to cause division instead of unity. The trouble is not that colleges do not want their student populace to feel comfortable but that curtailing the content of language just to instill said comfort could arguably be trampling upon the First Amendment (which protects free speech).
But, on the other side of the debate, many argue that the prime concern, on any college campus, should be a feeling of safety for its students. In a controversy wherein one side is at risk of creating echo chambers while the other side might create vicious protests, anger and even safety concerns themselves, which position should win out over the other?
An echo chamber is “an enclosed space that reproduces reverberations of sounds,” and the phrase recently has been co-opted to startlingly appropriate effect in modern-day habits of communication. The concept behind the modern echo chamber is that people surround themselves with ideas, people, and material that will support their ideas so that they never have to hear — or indeed be fully aware of — opposing arguments and beliefs. Only their own ideas — or those very much like their own — reverberate back at them (like the inside of a chamber).
One highly cited example of an echo chamber was exhibited in the protest against Charles Murray at Middlebury College in 2017. Charles Murray, the conservative author of “The Bell Curve,” has been accused of scientific racism for linking socioeconomic status with race and intelligence. The man was booed, physically molested (along with his faculty interviewer) and ultimately removed from the campus premise on the grounds that certain students were against the ideas which he espoused.
Fire alarms were pulled, shoves were made and general mayhem, not academic civility, reigned. In the aftermath, conservatives around the country viewed it as liberals being unable to listen to ideas different from their own. The conservative claim, in light of what happened to Murray at Middlebury, is hard to refute.
A more civil display
At the University of Michigan four months later, the experience was different. Murray spoke again. Following indictments from those such as Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican (who complained that Middlebury students would do better to “deal with it, counter or ignore it” rather than resort to censorship), UM chose to hear Murray out this time. According to The New York Times: “The university formed an ‘engagement team’ that included academics, student leadership and public safety officers in a dialogue with those who organized the talk.”
“We let students know that we were not only fully committed to the right of the speaker to speak, but the audience to hear and the right of those who wanted to express dissent to be able to do so in a way that didn’t preclude others’ rights,” Andrew D, Martin Martin dean of Michigan university’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. said, while speaking on a forum panel.
Although protests were still held during Murray’s talk, something called “a heckler’s warning” was put into effect where, after a couple of chances, the protestors would be forcibly removed from the grounds, but only after having it explained to them why it was important to stand up for free speech.
Students’ thoughts on the matter
In 2017, Gallup and the Knight Foundation, in partnership with the American Council on Education, the Charles Koch Foundation and the Stanton Foundation, conducted a survey wherein students were asked about their thoughts on free speech. According to the survey:
- 90 percent said using violence to silence somebody was never acceptable
- 10 percent viewed violence to silence somebody acceptable sometimes
- 37 percent said verbally accosting speakers is acceptable sometimes
The First Amendment is not the only factor here
But what about those speakers who cause legitimate and visceral fear in the students who are paying for a more inclusive and safe experience at college? Surely, they have a right to feel safe. Fifty-three percent of students surveyed viewed “promoting an inclusive society that welcomes diverse groups [to be] more important than protecting free speech” while “nearly two-thirds of students said that they did not believe the Constitution should protect hate speech.”
Richard Spencer, a prominent white nationalist, did a round of talks at colleges, including the University of Florida, last October. Joseph Glover, provost of the University of Florida noted that: “Some of [her students] experienced visceral fear. It was not a matter of whether or not [the white nationalist] should have the right to speak. [Students] were viscerally afraid of him because of his organization, what he stood for, his policies and his advocacies.”
Christina Paxson, president of Brown University asked how we are supposed “to balance the [justifiable fear of [some] free speech” with the constitutionally protected right to this speech. “You can’t tell people they can’t feel afraid,” she said. You can reassure them of their safety and try to make them comfortable, but “there’s no magic solution — it’s one of the realities of these types of events.”
Free speech might mean that everyone has the right to speak, said David Axelrod, former chief strategist and senior adviser for President Barack Obama and director of the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, but not the right “to be invited to speak.”
It is a hard line to parse, whether people should always be allowed to speak, especially when it sounds like they only have venom to spew. But, after all, who gets to decide what is venomous speech and what is simply an opposing view? Regardless of this tricky question, according to The New York Times, “people have to make a real effort to speak and listen to others who aren’t like them.” Axelrod’s “Bridging the Divide” hopes to do just that.
The program, part of Axelrod’s nonpartisan Institute of Politics, has sent 10 students from Chicago to Eureka College in central Illinois attended by President Ronald Reagan. The program also has sent 10 students from Eureka College to Chicago. These 20 students, said Axelrod, “went to various communities to talk to a variety of people [in order to] really [puncture] stereotypes.”
Axelrod’s program echoes the words of Van Jones, a news commentator who spoke at the Institute of Politics: “We owe it to [students] to keep [them] from physical harm, but we don’t owe it to [them] to keep [them] from ideas that [they] find abhorrent. We want [them] to be strong, not safe, because the world is going to demand that [they] be strong.”