Don’t They Study the First Amendment?

Back to January 2016 Ed Reporter

Don’t They Study the First Amendment?

While most college students focused on studying or how to pay their tuition, some students at several American colleges have recently staged sit-ins, held protests, and submitted long lists of demands to school administrators. In some cases, it seems that students only wish to hear a repetition of their own politically correct beliefs, shutting down anything resembling open debate.

Students have issued demands that colleges provide a “safe space.” For some this means administrators must do more to ensure a welcoming environment for students of color or others they believe to be marginalized on campus. For others it also means they shouldn’t have to hear anything with which they disagree or anything that they might find disturbing.

The president of the University of Missouri system and the chancellor both resigned “amid a controversy over race.” African-American students were joined by others who complained that school leaders failed to stop racism. Their complaints revolve around incidents of racial insults that allegedly took place on or near campus.

One incident that caused strife at Mizzou was a claim by the president of the Missouri Students Association who said that “white men in a passing pickup truck had hurled a racial epithet at him as he walked across campus in September.” (CNN, 11-9-15)

This raises the question of how much control a college administration can or should have over the controversial — and sometimes inappropriate — statements students or outsiders make. At what point does protecting the students cross the line to infringing upon First Amendment rights?

Colleges Encourage Attitudes

Many colleges have “speech codes” that prohibit certain speech. Some provide “free-speech zones,” which are particular areas of campus where one may speak freely, reserving the rest of the campus for only careful, politically correct rhetoric.

Professors are using “trigger warnings” in classrooms that alert students in advance when subject matter might distress them.

Even professors who encouraged reduced freedom of expression based on protections for certain “identities,” like race, and sex or gender identity are becoming alarmed at the amount of protection from debate that some students currently demand. Some professors dread giving lectures for fear of being accused of committing microagressions, which are subtle, unintentional and often unconscious affronts.

Administrators at Yale sent out an email advising students not to chose a Halloween costume that another student might find “offensive.” A professor, who along with her husband was head of a student housing unit, sent out a follow-up email suggesting that administrators should treat students as adults and not dictate their costume choices. Some students were angered by her email.

The professor wrote, “I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation, and other challenges to our lived experience in a plural community.” She continued, “Even if we could agree on how to avoid offense — and I’ll note that no one around campus seems overly concerned about the offense taken by religiously conservative folks to skin-revealing costumes — I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious . . . a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?”

“Her message was a model of relevant, thoughtful, civil engagement,” according to The Atlantic magazine. (11-9-15) But some students were offended by the email, and an enraged group of them verbally abused her husband on campus, while demanding their resignation.

In the end, she and her husband resigned their dorm position, he will take a sabbatical from teaching, and she quit.

Free Speech Matters

A Pew Research Center survey released in November of 2015 may partially explain what some students seek. A question on the Pew “Global Attitudes Survey” asked if “the government should be able to prevent people from saying offensive statements about minority groups.” Among American millennials, those aged 18-34, 40% want government to control such speech.

While the majority of this youngest age group still seems to understand the principle of free speech, generational differences are striking. Among Gen Xers, ages 35-50, and Boomers, ages 51-69, only 27% and 24%, respectively, agree with speech censorship.

Pew calls those aged 70-87 “Silent.” This group was most supportive of free speech, with only 12% supporting restrictions. (, 11-20-15)

It is clear that curtailment of free speech is gaining traction among younger people. Some wonder whether components of the modern education system are causing generational changes and individuals’ failure to understand the First Amendment. Maybe students aren’t studying the Constitution. Possibly the laser-like focus on multiculturalism and resulting effort to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings is skewing their critical thinking skills.

All that tolerance that educators have worked to instill in their students sometimes ends up looking quite intolerant.

The question of whether people “should be able to publicly say these things” hinges on who determines what “these things” are. Who would students choose as the free-speech police who would determine what is acceptable and what is not? Who will monitor when regulation crosses the line so that citizens are no longer allowed any opinions or beliefs about what is right or wrong?

It is hoped that once the younger generation has more time to reflect, more of them will see the dangers of handing over such duties to anyone, including the government.

After various campus incidents, some students will learn lessons about free speech, the Constitution, how to control one’s emotions, and how to react reasonably even in tense situations. Other students may fail to learn such important, positive lessons and will instead continue to be coddled and will come away from academic pursuits with a limited outlook, a flawed mindset, and other undesirable traits that could render them unemployable and unable to survive in the real world.