US university students see nuance in free speech limits

Amid strident debates, undergraduate attitudes reflect expert appeal for case-by-case considerations

February 2, 2019
free speech

Clear majorities of US university students endorse the idea of restricting at least some offensive speech on campus and penalising classmates who express it, an online survey of more than 2,000 undergraduates found.

The poll marked the latest in a series of surveys by the civil liberties advocacy group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which has been warning about an erosion of free-speech protections on US campuses.

The foundation, known as Fire, suggested a contradiction in the students backing some restrictions while asserting, by a 96 per cent majority, their general belief in protecting civil rights or liberties.

The students appear to be professing a commitment to free speech while having a "surface-level understanding" of what it actually means, said Nico Perrino, a spokesman for Fire.

The group issued its findings during the same week that representatives of accrediting agencies from the US and worldwide heard an appeal to treat such issues with as much nuance and understanding as possible.

Frederick Lawrence, a former president of Brandeis University, told the Council for Higher Education Accreditation conference in Washington that public US universities generally should respect free speech rights.

Yet, Professor Lawrence said, there are reasonable cases for limited and important exceptions. As an example, he cited the possibility of a group of rape survivors wanting to meet on campus without having to invite people with all conceivable points of view on the topic.

A major obstacle to finding such reasonable exceptions, and to creating positive ways of handling hostile voices that should not be banned, he said, is the level of public vitriol over free speech definitions.

“A surprising number of people are scared to death to talk about it, because it’s an easy way to get it wrong,” said Professor Lawrence. “If you get it wrong, you don’t just get criticised – you get pulverised.”

Given that federal free speech guarantees do allow cases such as Nazi sympathisers to speak on college campuses, Professor Lawrence lamented the failure of administrators and others in the community to craft creative and even humorous strategies for de-escalating tensions.

He cited a 2017 case where a prominent white nationalist planned to speak at the University of Florida campus in Gainesville, and a local brewery offered free beer to anyone who traded in an attendance ticket for the event.

Rather than wage a public fight that draws attention to the speaker, and possibly incites violence, a college president might see such a moment as a good time to “reach into his discretionary budget to create a nice alternative event”.

Professor Lawrence recalled doing that at Brandeis, when he merely provided a separate space with free coffee at the same time a provocative event was scheduled. That drew about 1,000 students, he said. The effectiveness of the tactic “blew me away”, he said.

Mr Perrino said Fire recognised the right of students to voluntarily form like-minded groups on campus. Some students, however, feel a right to far larger boundaries of protected space, he said.

“The best example of this is when students claim their entire public university campus is a safe space, and therefore certain viewpoints must be suppressed,” Mr Perrino said. “That’s a problem.”

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