Protecting free speech on college campuses

Free speech and the right to dissent are under attack on America’s college campuses. Some of the student activists urging censorship raise legitimate complaints about institutional and individual discrimination against minority students. Nevertheless, those wrongs do not justify their efforts to intimidate and silence opposition.

Two of the recent flashpoints occurred here in Connecticut at Wesleyan University and Yale. At Wesleyan, the student government cut funding for the student newspaper in half after it printed a guest commentary critical of the Black Lives Matter movement. At Yale, controversy swirled around emails about Halloween costumes of all things.

Both are private schools, of course. In theory, administrators could acquiesce to demands that they ban messages deemed inappropriate by some students without running afoul of the First Amendment. To administrators’ credit, they instead have chosen freedom. That has not silenced the activists, though.

At some schools, activists have even barred most media from their events in an attempt to shield themselves from anything that might challenge their politically correct worldview. Reporters who want to cover events must pledge fealty to the cause. Objective journalists need not apply.

Colleges and universities succeed when difficult, annoying, uncomfortable and even offensive ideas are permitted. Students who are not prepared to have their beliefs and feelings challenged are not prepared for higher education.

It is tempting to chalk this up to a generation of young people raised by helicopter parents who kept them safe from troubling aspects of the real world. Every child is a winner, and no one should say otherwise.

Maybe the blame lies with the digital world in which they grew up. Young adults came of age online where it is easy to wrap oneself in a comfortable blanket of intellectual conformity found on like-minded websites.

Yet upbringing and the Internet are only convenient scapegoats. This sort of misguided youthful activism has happened before and will happen again. Does no one remember the 1960s? How about the 1990s when political correctness on college campuses was so rampant that it prompted a mostly forgettable movie riffing on the topic titled “PCU.”

Administrators, teachers, parents and other adults have a responsibility to teach students that free speech is precious and that the best way to confront an odious idea is with a better one.

The Halloween incident at Yale is instructive. There, the adults comported themselves well.

It started with a message urging students not to wear costumes that mock racial or ethnic groups. Good advice, to be sure.

Things got ugly when Prof. Erika Christakis dared to suggest school administrators shouldn’t dictate costume selection to students. Her letter tread carefully in its wording. She acknowledged the feelings of uneasiness some people might experience when faced with an inappropriate costume, but she reminded everyone that the correct response when someone dresses like an idiot is to tell them they are an idiot. Free speech comes with consequences.

Students and a few allies among the faculty exploded with outrage. The nuance of Christakis’ letter was lost in a narrative that demanded heroes and villains, not thoughtful analysis.

When students become obsessed about having “safe spaces” where contrary positions cannot reach or hurt them, when speech must pass a test of political correctness, they undermine meaningful complaints and stifle healthy debate.

That all people should be treated with respect and equity regardless of their race, gender, sexual identity or religion is a powerful idea that can withstand the rhetoric of those who choose bigotry and insensitivity. It does not need protection from opposing views. Rather, it can and must confront those lesser alternatives head on in order to win hearts and minds.

The alternative is a single view imposed by decree. In such an environment, even the right idea withers. It becomes dogma followed blindly or unwillingly. Then students will only learn what to think but not how.

 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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