ACADEMIC FREEDOM
How free is speech on US campuses?

Students from four universities cite race and politics as sensitive topics on campus

15 May 2018
BY INDEX ON CENSORSHIP
Students sitting for 17 minutes in silence in front of the White House, remembering the Parkland victims. Credit: Victoria Pickering / Flickr
Students sitting for 17 minutes in silence in front of the White House, remembering the Parkland victims. Credit: Victoria Pickering / Flickr

Written by: Che Applewhaite, Samantha Chambers, Claire Kopsky and Sarah Wu

Survivors of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, have been making headlines lately with their calls for more American students to help them change the country’s gun laws. Their right to protest and petition politicians is enshrined in their right to free expression under the First Amendment.

It is clear that the US student body — whether at high school or college — is conflicted over the issue of free expression and what is or isn’t acceptable speech. While some recent surveys and studies show attitudes to be generally supportive of freedom of expression as an important right, in practice this isn’t always the case.

At this vital moment, students around the USA should see why free speech is so vital on their campuses, whether high school or university and what they have to lose if they won’t fight for it.

“Free speech must apply to everyone — even those whose views we find objectionable — or it applies to no one,” says Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of Index on Censorship. “Only by being able to express themselves freely and honestly, and also being exposed to as wide a range of viewpoints as possible can these get the most out of their education.”

In the past, the usefulness of free speech as part of such a campaign was much less in dispute. Martin Luther King Jr’s speeches and the student movements of the 1960s, which together changed a generation, relied on this very freedom. A lot of demonstrations today seem more geared towards the suppression of speech, such as those targeting conservative and alt-right voices like Milo Yiannopoulos at Berkeley and Richard Spencer at Michigan State University.

Students from four US universities weigh in on the issue and tell Index what is fair game on campus and what isn’t.

(Not) talking about race

The University of Missouri, colloquially known as a Mizzou and described as a “liberal student body in a red state”, is no stranger to racial tension. In 2015 the school saw protests by its football team and a graduate student go on hunger strike as part of a campaign to have the school’s president resign after mishandling racial issues on campus. This was followed by a drop in freshman enrollment and funding to the school.

Evan Lachnit, who studies journalism and sports at Mizzou, says that there are certain topics that, in the current political climate, are often too hot to touch. “As it relates to history, if there is one subject everyone appears to walk-on eggshells around, it would be slavery, one of, if not the largest, scars in American history,” he says. “It’s something many will just avoid altogether.”

The issue of “hate speech” — including speech considered to be insulting to a particular race — at Mizzou prompted the University of Missouri Police Department issued a campus-wide email asking “individuals who witness incidents of hateful and/or hurtful speech” to call them “immediately”. The police admit that “cases of hateful and hurtful speech are not crimes”, leaving many to wonder why they feel this is an issue the force should be concerned with.

“There is no question that a great deal of ‘hateful and/or hurtful speech’ is protected by the First Amendment, and that punishing students whose speech is determined to meet such a troublingly vague and subjective standard will violate students’ constitutional rights,” Fire, an organisation that campaigns for individual rights in higher education, said in a letter to the school’s chancellor, R. Bowen Loftin. “It is crucial that students be able to carry out such debates without fear that giving offence will result in being reported to the police and referred for discipline by the university.”

Sophie Kissinger, a senior studying history at Harvard University, claims that the ways in which her subject was taught in the past limits knowledge of American slavery today. Recently gifted a 1926 Harvard syllabus that outlines the core requirements for a history student at the time, she notices the document’s “neglect of the oppressed”. “These narratives largely serve to perpetuate a system of erasure, reinforcing colonial ideologies and degrading the lives of oppressed peoples,” she says. “This erasure is all around us today: only 8% of high school senior can identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War and most don’t know an amendment to the US Constitution formally ended slavery”.

Over at Villanova University, Emily Bouley, a junior studying business and psychology, says that privilege can be tricky to discuss because “everyone has different definitions of what privileged means”.

One topic in particular that’s likely to receive backlash, Bouley says, is affirmative action, those measures that are intended to end and correct the effects of a specific form of discrimination. “One time my professor was really passionate about racism against white males in job selection since there are more programs aimed towards diversity now than ever before, which is great, but sometimes candidates will get chosen because they are of a minority,” Bouley says. “Often this isn’t the case, but I felt so uncomfortable sharing my opinion because yes it happens and doesn’t support equality but it’s very hard to argue without sounding racist.”

Thanksgiving rule on campus: no politics

Located in the fifth most liberal city in America as ranked by Forbes, Boston University students are aware of the politically left-leaning environment they live in. But as with the family dinner table at Thanksgiving, heated conversation about politics is discouraged on campus.

According to the school’s policies, students must not “impose” offensive or upsetting views on others. Nicole Hoey, a junior studying journalism and English at the school, says the overwhelming liberal majority, though welcoming of opposing ideas, has a tendency to silence conservative voices through the sheer volume of liberal students. “As a journalist, free speech is so important,” Hoey says. “And for the most part, BU does a good job at promoting free speech on campus.”

“But I think people who voted for Trump would feel more frightened to speak their minds because we’re so liberal,” Hoey adds. “I think the only time they would feel safe is if they’re in College Republicans”.

This is probably why, following the 2016 election and the election of Donald Trump as president, BU College Republicans have seen an increase in attendance.

International studies major at the University of San Francisco Adule Dajani notes that “professors make their political views known pretty discreetly”. As a left-leaning school in a democratic state, Dajani says that USF professors try to remain unbiased by “talking about both the pros and cons of an issue”. However, she finds the conduct of the classroom facilitated by professors to be the main silencer for those in the minority side on any debate. “I can see how someone would feel too uncomfortable to speak up because the students are hotheads,” she says.

Candace Korasick, a professor at the school’s department of sociology at Mizzou, says her classes often tackle difficult issues, but there are some too controversial to discuss. “There are topics that I once would have broached in a class that I, not avoid, but now don’t initiate. And if students initiate them, I feel as if I’m tiptoeing through a minefield,” Korasick explains. “The two topics that I’d rather avoid are abortion and the Confederate flag. It is difficult to have a conversation with more than one or two students at a time on issues like that.”

Journalism and business student Nina Ruhe says topics like race, sexual assault and political beliefs are ones professors handle with “delicacy” on a surface level. For her, that’s a shame because it means she’s not getting any depth of knowledge on these topics as part of her education.

“While doing this allows the educators to say they’ve covered the issues and say that they’ve taken part in these important discussions, they also don’t go deep enough as to letting there be any real form of discussion,” Ruhe says. “Unfortunately, when I have heard of educators that have attempted to go into in-depth conversations about these topics, they are shut down by complaints from parents or superiors and are forced to stop.”

The right to freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest are crucial in a democracy – and crucial to any success the students of Parkland may have in changing America’s gun laws. They must be in no doubt that it a right that is on their side.

Later this year Index on Censorship will release a report on the freedom of speech on campus

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