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News / Nation & World

Amid student protests, some see erosion of free speech

Protests at Missouri, Yale inspire conversations, concerns regarding First Amendment

By LISA LEFF, Associated Press
Published: November 15, 2015, 9:27pm

SAN FRANCISCO — A recent groundswell of protests on college campuses over race, sexual misconduct and other social issues has some civil libertarians worried that the prized principle of free speech could be sacrificed in the rush to address legitimate student grievances.

The potential conflict between the protection of civil rights and the constitution’s First Amendment guarantees was on display at the University of Missouri in Columbia last week when students, supported by the football team, forced the resignation of system president Tim Wolfe over racial incidents and other problems on campus that they felt he had failed to take seriously. While their campaign drew widespread support and inspired similar demonstrations at colleges across the country, it also prompted a backlash from critics who said some actions went too far.

A Missouri assistant professor supportive of the student protests blocked a student photographer from an area where demonstrators had set up a tent city, a move which infringed freedom of the press. The student protesters quickly reversed the media ban, saying the incident had been a “teachable moment” for them.

Also, university police encouraged students to report any “hateful and/or hurtful” speech they experienced for investigation, leaving the impression that any comment considered offensive could be a crime. Free speech advocates complained and police clarified that offensive language alone would not be treated as a hate crime.

While the First Amendment guarantees freedom of assembly and the right of citizens to state their grievances, it also enshrines freedom of the press and free speech. Some academics and First Amendment experts said the incidents at Missouri showed a hyper-sensitivity that confused the difference between vigorous public debate and threats or harassment that constitute crimes.

“People wrongly believe they have a right not to be offended. That is not only faulty, but we as educators have a duty to be offensive in the sense of forcing people to rethink their fundamental assumptions,” said New York Law School Professor Nadine Strossen, the former president of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Diversity is cited as this mantra, yet we are killing ideological diversity, which is just as important.”

There have been numerous protests — and even cancellation — of campus speakers who voiced controversial views ranging from liberal comedian Bill Maher to conservative former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Supporters of civil liberties also cited more restrictive campus codes of conduct, and the use of “trigger warnings” to alert students about uncomfortable course content.

Censorship concerns

Samantha Harris, director of policy research at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said censorship used to come primarily from the top down but now is coming from students.

“Students increasingly seem to be arriving on campus believing that there is a generalized right not to be offended beyond the actual right to be free from harassment and threats, this amorphous right to emotional safety. It’s a troubling trend,” she said.

But some student activists counter that they are getting more aggressive because administrators only give lip service to legitimate issues such as persistent racism and sexual assault.

“The time for empty words, hollow apologies and ‘brainstorming forums’ that lead to no real progress is over,” Taylor Lemmons, a student at Claremont McKenna College in California, said in a blog post. The dean of students there resigned last week after an email pledging to do more for minority students who “don’t fit our CMC mold.” The email was viewed by some students as a sign their concerns were falling on deaf ears.

At Yale, a residential college administrator faces calls for her removal after she defended the wearing of Mexican sombreros, Native American headpieces or other stereotypical Halloween attire.

A University of Colorado, Boulder sociology professor was suspended, but then cleared, after student complaints about a course on deviant behavior that featured teaching assistants dressed up as sex workers. The professor had used the role playing device for a lecture on prostitution, but administrators initially said it created a hostile environment for students.

American Association of University of Professors Vice President Henry Reichman said faculty members may not feel as free to be provocative as they once did. He blames overly-sensitive administrators and says faculty need to do a better job educating students about the nuances of academic freedom and the First Amendment.

“If somebody burns a cross outside a black fraternity that is not free speech. That is harassment. If someone paints a swastika on a Jewish fraternity, that is harassment. But if somebody says something offensive about black people out of bigotry or against an Israeli policy, that is free speech,” Reichman said. “The border may be hard to find, but there is a border.”