Is Free Speech Under Attack?

free speech

The evolution of free speech on college campuses has taken a remarkable turn from its early days with the famous Berkeley Free Speech Movement in 1964 that encouraged students to speak out on some of the most controversial issues of the day.

Today, college campuses are again the focal point of free speech, but the emphasis is the opposite as words that are considered hurtful are being curtailed. The first amendment to the US Constitution and subsequent Supreme Court rulings have been quite clear about the limitations of free speech. For the most part, action speech in which an individual directs others to commit crimes is not protected under the first amendment.

However, on many college campuses there is a new movement by students to ban words, phrases, and even speakers who might utter views that could offend their sensibilities. Instead of the open expression of ideas, professors now fear offending students or saying something that might be viewed as hateful or hurtful which in turn might get them into trouble. School administrators are divided between two seemingly different movements, diversity and free speech which have managed to come into conflict during the past several years.

Interestingly enough, the students who protest today seem just as genuine in terms of their fears as their counterparts in the 1960s. However, what was once protests over free speech and free love have been replaced by safe spaces and cultural appropriation. The source of this new movement is not very difficult to understand as it has evolved over the past few decades.

The baby boomer generation that lived through the Vietnam War has helped to create children and grandchildren who have grown up in a more isolated, less conflicted world where their conflicts are adjudicated and their feelings protected from the outside world. Add to this the explosion of the internet and social media which helps create immediate responses and the result has been a movement of protecting feelings against ideas that they do not embrace.

A dormitory associate master at Yale was forced to resign after stating that the administration did not need to tell them what Halloween costumes were deemed appropriate, even if they might offend certain people. This new movement against free speech has been cloaked in terms of protecting individuals and groups has managed to spark outrage on both sides across the US.

From student journalists being told to leave protests to those accused of using racial epithets without any proof, they all have managed to spark a great debate as to the limits of free speech in America. The seeming overreaction of one group by offenses they claim are committed by another has led to college administrators wary of getting involved.

In the end, the first amendment stands as the only protection for those to express their belief system, even if it is regarded as unacceptable by others. The rise of students protesting the freedom of speech by others stands in stark contrast to their grandparents fighting for the rights of free speech and expression on the very same campuses a half-century ago.