The Free Speech Controversy on Campus

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“Free Speech” is a monthly column by Chris Finan, director of the American Booksellers for Free Expression (ABFE), that shares his personal thoughts and opinions on a broad range of free expression issues; the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the American Booksellers Association. Finan welcomes comments and suggestions at

Free speech is a messy business.

The latest example is the controversy that has arisen during protests over racial discrimination at Missouri State University, Yale University, and many other colleges and universities.

In a signature moment that was captured on a cell phone, an African-American student at Yale berates a faculty member, Nicholas Christakis. The student is irate because Christakis’ wife, Erika, also a faculty member, had criticized a Yale communication urging students not to wear Halloween costumes that are racially insensitive.

The student refuses to let Christakis respond. Others demanded that Yale fire the Christakises, which the university recently refused to do.

The free speech controversy that has erupted as a result of these protests may seem remote from the First Amendment rights that protect booksellers and their customers. But in recent years there have been frequent calls to ban some authors from speaking at bookstores. Protesters regularly demonstrate outside the Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver because it refuses to take a position on a city regulation that affects the homeless.

All of these cases involve a clash between people asserting their First Amendment rights. In the campus controversy, should we side with a minority that is trying to make itself heard or condemn those who violate the very rights that make protest possible?

It is indisputable that there have been multiple violations of free speech.

A faculty supporter of the Missouri State protesters was filmed calling for demonstrators to provide “muscle” to remove a student journalist working for ESPN who was trying to take pictures of the protest.

Some Wesleyan University students sought to eliminate funding for the student newspaper because it ran an opinion piece that raised questions about the Black Lives Matter movement.

At Amherst College, students have demanded that the administration punish the creators of a poster that accuses protesters of attempting to suppress free speech.

Clearly, emotions are white hot. The Black Lives Matter movement appears to have galvanized minority students who feel that school administrators are not taking seriously their complaints about racism on campus.

Inevitably, the protests have produced a backlash. Conservatives who have long viewed colleges and universities as bastions of liberalism and political correctness have criticized protesters for attempting to silence those who disagree with them. The protesters have also taken heat from the media for blocking reporters from covering demonstrations unless they promise to support their demands.

The protesters respond that the free speech argument is being used to distract attention from the real problem, which is that they are being denied equal rights. “The language of free speech is being abused in order to dismiss the arguments of those whose voices have been silenced for far too long,” Laura Penny wrote in the New Statesman recently.

This is an oversimplification. The concern about free speech on campus is legitimate. Colleges and universities have a long history of attempting to censor students and faculty. The idea of academic freedom emerged at the beginning of the 20th century when administrators attempted to impose political orthodoxy.

During the Cold War, the government required teachers to sign loyalty oaths and expelled Communists and others who refused to sign. In the 1980s, many colleges and universities adopted speech codes that gave administrators wide latitude in punishing students who said things that offended minority and female students.

Loyalty oaths and speech codes were eventually declared violations of the First Amendment, but new free speech cases occur frequently. The University of Illinois recently agreed to pay a professor a large sum because it withdrew a job offer it had made to him after discovering he posted controversial comments about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Twitter.

Seventy-two women’s groups are currently trying to ban Yik Yak on campus because some students have used the social media app to make anonymous comments that are demeaning to women, racial minorities, and people who are gay, lesbian, and transgender.

Students have also been guilty of advocating limits on free speech. Many supported the speech codes; others have disrupted addresses by people whose views they dislike. Lately, some have urged the adoption of so-called “trigger warnings” to give them advance notice of potentially offensive material that may be used in college courses even though this could have a chilling effect on instruction.

But the protesters have a point when they say that complaints about free speech violations are distracting attention from the issue of racism. They could help their cause by repudiating all efforts to silence their critics, but people who are fighting for their rights are often blind to the consequences of their actions. In the heat of battle, they are prone to make mistakes.

The Supreme Court recognized this potential for error during the Civil Rights Movement by expanding free speech to protect extreme statements. In one case, the Court upheld the right to boycott white businesses that discriminated even though one of the civil rights leaders threatened to “break heads” if any blacks violated the boycott. In another, New York Times v. Sullivan, it overturned a libel judgment against activists who had some of their facts wrong in a newspaper advertisement published by the Times.

In the Sullivan case, the Court defined freedom of speech in the broadest language it has ever used:

            “We consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”

We have to expect harsh words from protesters.

Democracy is a rough and tumble affair.