Students protesters at California State University during an appearance by alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos last year.
Students protesters at California State University during an appearance by alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos last year. David McNew

Yesterday, Rich posted a piece headlined "There's No Free Speech Crisis on Campus, So Please Shut Up About It." In it, he looks at a recent Vox post by Matthew Yglesias, who argues that, despite the concern of Stranger elders and the New York Times Opinion section—and a rash of students shutting down speakers—free speech on campus is not actually in any danger so everyone can stop wringing their knickers about it.

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Rich agrees with Yglesias. "There are a lot of problems on campus," he writes. "The numbers suggest that the death of free speech isn't one of them." As evidence, Rich cites a survey released Monday by the Knight Foundation and Gallup, which found, broadly, that "students believed First Amendment freedoms were secure, and they generally preferred that campuses be open environments that encourage a wide range of expression." From that conclusion, it's easy to see why both Rich and Yglesias would think that there's no free speech "crisis" on campus and the old farts whining about it are closet conservatives pissed that the kids won't put down their bullhorns and go back to math. But, when you look at the survey, some troubling patterns emerge.

From the survey's key findings:

When asked whether free expression or diversity and inclusion is more important, [students] tilt toward saying diversity and inclusion are. Students are as likely to favor campus speech codes as to oppose them, and they overwhelmingly favor free speech zones on campus. Students do not believe the U.S. Constitution should protect hate speech, and they continue to support campus policies that restrict both hate speech and wearing stereotypical costumes.

This is important. According to the poll, nearly two-thirds of students do not believe the Constitution should protect hate speech. On the surface, this sounds okay. Who wants more hate speech in the world? But while hate speech may be vile, the First Amendment makes no distinction between hate speech and any other form of speech—which is why the American Civil Liberties Union consistently defends the rights of terrible people, including both neo-Nazis and the KKK, to both speak and demonstrate in public.

“The First Amendment to the Constitution protects speech no matter how offensive its content,” reads the ACLU's statement on campus free speech. “Restrictions on speech by public colleges and universities amount to government censorship, in violation of the Constitution. Such restrictions deprive students of their right to invite speech they wish to hear, debate speech with which they disagree, and protest speech they find bigoted or offensive. An open society depends on liberal education, and the whole enterprise of liberal education is founded on the principle of free speech.”

Because of the First Amendment, it is unconstitutional for public universities to censor speakers they don't like. That means that students who try to de-platform, un-invite, or otherwise shut down some speakers are demanding that universities violate civil rights.

The fundamental problem with restricting hate speech on public campuses (or any other public space) is that the definition of "hate speech" can be stretched to encompass everything with which you personally disagree. And then expand beyond that. We all may agree that when white nationalist Richard Spencer talks, it's hate speech, but what about Madeline Albright, who was twice the subject of campus dis-invitation campaigns by students in 2016? Or Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, the head of the ACLU of Virginia, whose appearance at William & Mary was protested in 2017? Do Albright and Gastañaga practice hate speech as well? And who gets to decide?

This isn't to say that students shouldn't protest on campus; they can and they should. Public institutions, including colleges, have a responsibility to "protect the rights to free speech of both speakers and of people who want to publicly object to their views," as Doug Honig, the communications director the ACLU of Washington state, told me. But attempting to silence speakers for "hate speech"—or just because they say things students find distasteful—is an ill conceived and illiberal form of protest. For one, it doesn't hold up in court: The Supreme Court has consistently affirmed that all speech, even that we don't like, even the most offensive speech, must be protected. In the now-famous Slants case, in which an Asian American band attempted to trademark a slur, the Court decided that discrimination against viewpoints—even against when those viewpoints are offensive—is unconstitutional.

"A law that can be directed against speech found offensive to some portion of the public can be turned against minority and dissenting views to the detriment of all,” Justice Kennedy wrote in his decision. “The First Amendment does not entrust that power to the government’s benevolence." And neither should college kids.

Back to the survey:

Students have become more likely to think the climate on their campus prevents people from speaking their mind because others might take offense. More students now (61%) than in 2016 (54%) agree that the climate on their campus prevents some students from expressing their views. Although a majority of college students, 69%, believe political conservatives on campus are able to freely and openly express their views, many more believe political liberals (92%) and other campus groups are able to share their opinions freely.

It's no secret that most public universities lean to the left. Personally, I don't think there's anything wrong with that—college professors are, in theory, in the business of teaching reality, and, as Stephen Colbert put it, “reality has liberal bias.” If you want a conservative education, there are plenty of private schools for that, although you might graduate thinking dinosaurs roamed the earth with Adam and Eve. However, hearing differing viewpoints is essential not just to a well-rounded education, but also to a well-informed populace, and if some students or even faculty fear speaking out, your education is won't be as comprehensive or as useful as it needs to be. How are you supposed to learn to debate your Fox News-watching dad if everyone with a dissenting opinion is too scared to speak up? College should be a place to exercise ideas, not to nod along with the echo chamber.

But right now, students are scared to speak out. In 2017, the Foundation for Individuals in Education (FIRE) released a report on college students' attitudes about free speech. In one survey of 1,250 students, they asked them to respond to two statements: (1) “In my college classes, I have stopped myself from sharing my ideas and opinions,” and (2) “When I spend time on campus outside of my classes, I have stopped myself from sharing my ideas or opinions.” Nearly half (48 percent) of respondents said they self-censor in the classroom.

This hestitation to speak up has spread from campuses into the rest of culture, in no small part, I think, thanks to social media, where any dissent from the dominant cultural narrative is immediately attacked. In person, people generally treat each other with some measure of respect, if for no other reason than cowardice and social decorum: It's a lot harder to call someone "trash" to their face than it is on Twitter.

While social media may have given the world a platform, there's also been a chilling effect. I see this daily, as my inbox fills up with readers saying, "I wouldn't say this in public, but I agree with you." Andrew Sullivan examined the fear of dissent recently in a column entitled, "We All Live on Campus Now." "An entirely intended byproduct of this kind of bullying ...," he wrote, "is silence. If voicing an 'incorrect' opinion can end your career, or mark you for instant social ostracism, you tend to keep quiet. This silence on any controversial social issue is endemic on college campuses, but it’s now everywhere."

There’s no beauty in homogeneity, and that includes homogeneity of ideas. And yet, FIRE's study also found that "58 percent of college students think it’s important to be part of a campus community where they are not exposed to intolerant or offensive ideas." That word—exposed—is telling. While I personally think everyone would benefit from hearing ideas with which they disagree, speakers aren't actually forcing themselves into students' classrooms; they are invited by student groups to give public talks. There's an easy way to prevent exposure, and that, quite simply, is to stay home. Or, if so inclined, stand outside the lecture hall and protest. But, more importantly, who gets to decide what's offensive and what's not? Not that many decades ago, the overwhelming majority of people on any given campus in the U.S. were offended by the sight of two men kissing. But then, as now, queer students on campuses in the '70s and '80s had the right to be offensive.

Another finding from the survey:

Extreme actions to prevent speakers from speaking are largely, but not universally, condemned. Ninety percent of college students say it is never acceptable to use violence to prevent someone from speaking, but 10% say is acceptable sometimes. Thirty-seven percent of college students also believe shouting down speakers is sometimes acceptable.

We know both from history and social science that when it comes to any kind of social movement—be it the Vietnam anti-war effort in the late ‘60s or the Black Lives Matter movement today—most people do not participate. Whether we're talking about ISIS, Antifa, the KKK, or students shutting down speakers on college campuses, "Radical actors are often the tip of a large pyramid," as Rutgers social psychologist Lee Jussim pointed out on Twitter.


"A small, radical minority can create a crisis regardless of what the majority believes," Jussim told me in a phone interview. "A 'crime wave' doesn't mean everyone is a criminal. But that doesn't mean there's not still a problem with crime." So, while the number of students involved in de-platforming, uninviting, and shutting down speakers on campus may be small, they are still mighty—as demonstrated by the fact that we’re talking about this right now.

Has the media made this story bigger than it is, especially when there's Trump and Syria and climate change, and when a massive swath of the U.S. is currently running out of water and the oceans are dying and Katy Perry tricked that guy into kissing her? Yes, definitely. As Rich pointed out in his post, there are many, many other problems facing higher education, including the fact that it can take a literal lifetime to pay off. But think pieces about free speech are way clickier and more fun to write than stories about the real crises. And, for the record, I think the word "crisis" is overused and should be limited to financial collapse, ecological disaster, war, and Donald Trump (sorry about the headline—that's clickbait for you). But if students, even a small number, weren't shutting down speakers, no one would be arguing about free speech on campus right now.

For Ygelsias, however, the fact that only a small percentage of students are involved in de-platforming attempts is evidence that the "crisis" is a myth. "By rhetorically lumping in instances of rare, fairly extreme behavior with much more common behaviors under the broad heading of 'political correctness,'" he writes, "it is easy to paint an alarming picture of the hecklers as a leading edge of an increasingly authoritarian political culture." But does it matter how many students are doing the shouting if the effect is exactly the same? During the unrest at Evergreen State College last year, a small number of students took over the campus, barricaded buildings, kept faculty and administrators in their offices, and roamed the campus with bats and batons, calling those who disagreed with them “traitors.” Were most students involved? No, of course not. But the ones who were had a large and lasting effect.

Besides, even if the number of students who actually wield batons and bullhorns is small, another FIRE survey found that over half (56 percent) of students say that it's acceptable for a university to un-invite speakers after an event has been announced, including nearly 65 percent of student activists. And this does fall along ideological lines: 78 percent of "very liberal" students think disinviting speakers is okay, compared to only 38 percent of "very conservative" students.

On campus, this plays out as you'd expect: According to FIRE's database of disinvitation attempts on campus, out of 40 disinvitation efforts on college campuses between 2017 and 2018, only five came from the right. Thirty-four came from the left. The unaffiliated attempt, by the way, came from some Chinese students at the University of California in San Diego who, in 2017, objected to the choice of the Dalai Lama as commencement speaker because of his advocacy for an autonomous Tibet. The student protesters described the Buddhist spiritual leader as a “terrorist”—further proof that what and who qualifies as “offensive” all depends on who you ask.

While some of these attempts may seem justified—who doesn't want to shout at Betsy Devos?—others just seem misplaced. Take, for instance, Reed College, where in 2016, students protested a speaking appearance by Kimberly Peirce, the lesbian filmmaker who directed Boys Don't Cry, because she cast a cis actor in the role of a trans person in 1999. Is a nearly 20-year-old sin—one that, at the time, wasn’t a sin in the first place—worth protesting today? At Reed, apparently, yes. And for good measure, they put up posters reading, "Fuck this cis white bitch."

As Rich pointed out, "57 percent of black people, 51 percent of women, and 58 percent of Democrats said free speech is 'extremely important.'" While this seems shockingly low to me, I suppose I can take solace in the fact that it's at least over half. Still, I agree with Rich and Yglesias that this debate has taken an outsized place in the national conversation. But I also think there's good reason to keep an eye on what's happening at colleges and schools: While conservatives, both historically and at this moment, have no right to claim the mantle of free speech, right-wing agitators have used student protests to claim free speech as their own, while students—and, by association, the left—have begun to look like the intolerant ones.

Make no mistake: This is a tactic, not an ideology—the Trump administration has shown us what the right really thinks of free speech. But every time some middle-of-the-road soccer mom or grandmother or anyone on the fence between left and right turns on the nightly news and sees college students shouting down speakers, who do you think they will side with, and who do you think they will vote for later on? Probably not the ones foaming at the mouth.

This issue is important, because, as Andrew Sullivan pointed out in his piece, what happens on college campuses doesn't stay on college campuses. People graduate. They take their experiences and expectations into the real world—into the schools where they teach and the workplaces that they will eventually run. And as this intolerance spreads, the backlash will only become greater. The campus free speech issue has already become fuel for conservatives and the alt-right, who turn student protests into memes about the left. Besides, shutting down speakers just doesn't work: It brings more attention to whoever you want to object to. That's exactly what they want. Students need to be smarter than that.

I'll leave the last word to a former organizer, who addressed the graduating class at Howard University in 2016: "Don’t try to shut folks out, don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them," Obama said. "There's been a trend around the country of trying to get colleges to un-invite speakers with a different point of view or disrupt a political rally. Don't do that, no matter how ridiculous or offensive you might find the things that come out of their mouths." He continued, "Listen, engage, if the other side has a point, learn from them. If they're wrong, rebut them, teach them, beat them on the battlefield of ideas."