Is Freedom of Speech Dead on College Campuses?

“Students are not in college to feel good. Learning at its best is the antithesis of comfort.”

“Students should not be safe from ideas. They should be safe for ideas.”

“Freedom of speech on campuses is more important than ever.”

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These are the statements which former ACLU president and current NYU law professor Nadine Strossen challenged her audience with on April 4 at RIT. In her astute and provocative address entitled “Hostile Environment Policies for Free Speech,” Strossen asked large questions about the current state of fee speech on academic campuses. “Just one minute of showing the wrong YouTube video in class can ruin a professor’s career,” she said.

Stroessen lectures like a former lawyer turned professor. She always makes her case by sticking to the testimony and admissible evidence. She foregoes PowerPoint. There are no gimmicks. There is just a thorough explanation of topics ranging from sexual harassment and sexual abuse to the pedagogical values of a true liberal arts education. She cites numerous examples from published papers, court cases, and popular studies, and she makes her case that not only is freedom of speech under siege, its abridgement is used to silence the very voices it aims to benefit. She clearly knows how to deconstruct hypocritical statements like a seasoned attorney groomed in the art of classroom philosophical refutation. Somehow her style is both dry and juicy at the same time.

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To summarize her positions, Stroessen sees a full frontal assault on personal expression on both private and public institutions of higher learning. She sees an epidemic of disinviting speakers because of their offensive speech. She sees a world of higher education that is devoid of joking because it can be taken the wrong way. She sees an educational trend towards the regulation of free speech for political and economic reasons. Instead of learning how to think for oneself, and to be confronted by opinions and views that are not familiar or agreeable, students are shielded from any idea that upsets them or makes them uncomfortable. Sarcasm has been criminalized. Profanity has been outlawed. Satire has is no longer tolerable. Independent thought is banned.

It is interesting to note that Strossen comes by her civil libertarianism naturally. In an interview she said: “My father was a holocaust survivor and my mother’s father was a protestor during World War I when he came to this country as an immigrant, and was literally spat upon for not going to fight in the war. His official sentence for being a conscientious objector was to be forced to stand against the courthouse in Hudson County, New Jersey so that passer-by could spit on him.”

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With the stances that Strossen was charged to defend as ACLU president, and the ones she argued on behalf of at RIT, it is not surprising that she has been figuratively spat on her entire career. When she says that too much free speech has been censored, there is someone in the audience who has been the victim of hate speech and wants retribution. When she says that explicit consent in sexual relationships is too narrow a concept of consent, there is a young woman or man in the rows who has been raped or sexually assaulted. And when she says that to be bombarded by viewpoints is not bad, for that is the purpose of college, inevitably there will be someone in the audience who has been propagandized, recruited, manipulated, or violated by the spoken and written expression of ideas. Strossen does not hold these views because they are popular or safe. She holds them because they are quintessentially American, and to let go of them means the collapse of our democracy.

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As she explained, there was once a time when we burned women as witches because we did not understand their form of expression. With the slow and steady evolution of due process and individual freedom, we have reached a point where the unknown does not need to be suppressed in order to be overcome. With the advance of science we can now overcome our fear through communication and understanding.

The urge to censor is a fundamental one. But we do not need to give up our own freedoms in order to erase the uncertainty we feel about the freedom of others. We are, after centuries of human toil and progress, free to embrace not just our own liberty, but to cherish and protect the liberty of all living creatures.

Has not the censorship and restriction of free speech always been the hallmark trade of dictators and tyrants? Are we not a nation of free persons? As free persons should we not raise our youth to believe that they have a conscience that cannot be owned by others? Should we not teach our students to fight for the right to speak and to listen to others speak? Isn’t that what we have fought for since the opening shot in Lexington?

 

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*Of course we are restricted in countless ways. Just a cursory glance around the building where Strossen’s lecture was held shows how regulated we are as a citizenry. How is speech different from these other social prohibitions? What rights do we have when it comes to language that we do not have when it comes to our bodies?

 

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