Liberals and conservatives call for dialogue
The line between free speech and respect continues to be battled over on college campuses. The debate over political correctness did not end with the results of the election. Liberal activists have vowed to fight for greater inclusion of minorities in American culture while conservatives charge that the culture of political correctness stifles freedom of speech.
Trump’s election further complicated the pitched culture battles happening across the country.
Debate between conservative and liberal students on college campuses continues over the limits on free speech. While Trump’s election may not impact free speech on college campuses, it may lead to a culture shift in how the two groups approach each other.
“He uses rhetoric that is meant to get an emotional rise out of somebody, rather than encourage them to think critically,” said Chris Davis, MSU Denver student senator. Davis said that if Trump continues to behave as he did on the campaign trail, his followers will operate in a similar way and incite people on the left.
“I’m worried that the left could quite potentially turn into what they’re trying to fight, which is to start to use these labels and things like that to marginalize these conservative students,” he said. “What we should be doing instead is engage in dialogue with them.”
Devyn Deeter, founder and President of MSU Denver’s conservative club, said that she has been personally attacked over her political preferences. She said that other students have called her sexist and racist before. Deeter is critical of the social justice language of the left. While Trump may not impact broader free speech rights, she said, his election may have an impact on the cultural debates that take place on college campuses.
“If anything, this is just gonna make the liberal students want to push for censorship more,” Deeter said, adding that nervous liberal students may have a reactionary response to the new president.
“I think him being president will make conservative students more confident in resisting,” she said.
PEN America Center is an organization dedicated to defending freedom of speech. Established in 1922, the organization is based out of New York. It has a membership of 33,000 writers, editors and translators.
Recently, the organization published a report on the state of free speech on college campuses. The report studies a variety of incidents that took place at colleges across the country. The Melissa Click episode, where a professor called for muscle to remove two student reporters at the University of Missouri, was one such case study.
Another case took place at Yale University, where lecturer Erika Christakis was forced to resign after replying publicly to an email circulated by the Yale Intercultural Affairs committee over what may be perceived as racially insensitive costumes.
The report found that while free speech was no pervasive crisis of free speech, a potential danger existed from a rising generation of students with different priorities.
“Our goal was really to see how can we find some common ground between these sides. Can we reconcile these competing principles,” said PEN America Executive Director Suzanne Nossel at a panel discussion in Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center on Nov. 17.
The report explored each side of the free speech debate. It went into depth on topics like safe spaces, microaggressions, trigger warnings, and Title IX violations. The purpose of the report wasn’t just to look at all sides of the free speech debate, but to offer recommendations on how best to protect free speech while taking student grievances into account.
“Our argument is it can be done. These things are not fundamentally in mortal conflict. They can and must be reconciled. It’s all of our work to make this polarized debate into something more constructive and to find a basis for going forward,” Nossel said.
According to the report, the reason for increased friction on college campuses is due to the shifting demographics of incoming student populations. Citing statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics, the report said that minority groups raised their attendance percentages on college campuses from 1976 to 2013 by a significant amount.
This change mirrors the changing face of America as well. Pew Research Center reports that by 2060, the United States will be a minority-majority country. These changing demographics have led to a culture change in America, as previously marginalized groups find ways of political expression.
The question facing college campuses is how to balance the line between free speech and the demand that certain students make for inclusion and respect.
“I think people who counterprotest our beliefs should be protected under the first amendment,” said Storm Ervin, a student activist and graduate from the University of Missouri. She spoke at the same panel in Philadelphia as Nossel.
“Once your speech becomes harmful, once it’s a racial slur, once it’s being called a ‘Nigger,’ versus, ‘I don’t think you guys should be here at the campsite,’ Ervin said, drawing a distinction between what she said was critique and language meant to dehumanize.
She also added that there should be consequences for students who do engage in hate speech.
“If you do any kind of blatant, hateful, racist act, you should be expelled,” she said.
Under the First Amendment, hate speech is protected. Public institutions, which are funded by public dollars are obligated to follow federal law when it comes to speech rights. Private institutions aren’t subject to the same requirements. However, according to the PEN America report, private institutions have an interest in keeping open speech codes due to their status as marketplaces of ideas.
“I think there should be consequences. As somebody who disciplines adults as a part of my job, I don’t think there’s a one size fits all for consequences,” said Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson, another speaker at the panel. “I think that’s not fair to people. I don’t think that’s fair to context.”
However, Mckesson said that it made sense to him when a university suspends a student for a semester after the student dons blackface. He said that in that context, the incident acts as a learning experience from which the student can learn. However, if someone beats someone up because the victim was black, Mckesson said he didn’t think the perpetrator should be allowed back in the community. Regardless, having a consequence for an action is what matters to him. He is skeptical that there should be no consequences for actions and instead believes any consequence should fit the context.
Law scholar and panel speaker Geoffrey Stone said that the reason existed for the way both the courts and academic institutions approach limits on expression was mistrust.
“If I can say, ‘I don’t like that speech,’ and so those in authority should punish those who convey those views, then I’m empowering them to make other decisions,” he said.
Stone argued that if there were consequences for disseminating hate speech, then it could open the door to allowing a government or school to crack down on other speech in the future such as LGBT, pro-choice and affirmative action advocacy.
“The problem with censorship is that you don’t control it,” he said.
However, to students like Ervin, the conversation is more than theoretical. She said that hate speech was something real that she had to deal and cope with in her personal life.
“For people coming from minority communities, which are concentrated in black areas, to come into the space and be reminded that ‘you’re life doesn’t matter, because if you’re life mattered I would respect you enough to not use this language toward you.”
Although Davis and Deeter hail from opposite sides of the political spectrum, they agree about the importance of free expression. More important, they said, was the need to engage the other side without demonizing each other. Davis said that finding the line between free speech and the need for respect is a difficult question.
“There will come a time at which they need to feel uncomfortable, because that is the nature of political conversation,” Davis said.
Deeter said she disagrees with any notion of curbing speech. Doing so, she said, infantilizes students and makes them unprepared for the world outside university where there are no safety nets.
She wants to see more civility in the way students conduct public debates.
“One of the most disheartening things for me this semester is the intense, almost hatred, if you say anything that they disagree with people think you are a horrible person,” she said.
Deeter said that even though she may disagree with them, she has friends with differing political perspectives.
“I really disagree, but does that mean I think you’re a horrible person? No. I think political beliefs are very complicated and dependent on your personality and what you think is important. Everyone has different priorities,” she said.
In the end, perhaps the only way to understand each other is talk to one another again like human beings.
“We all need to understand that the first step in trying to figure out what’s going on and move past this pain that fuels all this hate speech from both sides is that we need to drop that for a second and really listen to each other,” Davis said. “And really try to understand what the other person is trying to say.”