Do whining college students respect free speech?

November 18, 2015
Peter Scheer

Peter Scheer


There’s nothing like the massacre of 129 Parisian civilians at the hands of jihadi sociopaths, utterly convinced that their barbarism manifests the will of God, to provide some perspective on the recent whinings of students at a number of America’s most elite colleges and universities.

For the past few weeks, students across the country—at Yale University in Connecticut, Amherst College in Massachusetts, New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College, the University of Missouri, and southern California colleges Claremont McKenna and Occidental—have been testing the limits of academic liberalism.  Students have demanded official mea culpas for alleged institutional racism, sexism and other “structural” sins against “marginalized” groups (defined mainly on the basis of race, ethnicity and sexual orientation or gender ), while expressing intolerance  for criticism and outright hostility for the principle of free speech.

At Amherst, students calling themselves the “Amherst Uprising” demanded that students responsible for circulating  “free speech” fliers be disciplined for their nonconforming views and given “extensive training for racial and cultural competency.” They also demanded that the college president apologize for the school’s “institutional legacy of white supremacy, colonialism, anti-black racism, anti-Latinx racism, anti-Native American racism, anti-Native/indigenous racism, anti-Asian racism, anti-Middle Eastern racism, heterosexism, cis-sexism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, ableism, mental health stigma, and classism.”  (Disclosure: I graduated from Amherst several decades ago).

If there is a common denominator to the complaints, it is students’ expectation that they are entitled to a campus that is a “safe place” —-by which is meant an academic environment uncontaminated with ideas that they find “offensive.” And by “offensive,”  students mean expression that deviates from a politically correct orthodoxy of received opinion. By this standard, any criticism, any dissent or disagreement, is not merely unwelcome, but actually threatening and harmful in a way that demands immediate protective measures by college administrators.

This is a new and disturbing  phenomenon. While the current generation of college students is not the first to be seduced by the power of censorship, it may be the first to insist on that power as a means of protection from viewpoints that are insufficiently sensitive to their self-image as victims. When did college students become so fearful of competing ideas? When did they become so emotionally frail that even the hint of criticism is seen as a hostile act from which they must be shielded (and for which perpetrators must be re-educated)?

College students always say and do stupid things; it goes with the territory. But today’s students’ equating of  hurt feelings with scarring wounds is a departure that leads to dangerous overreaction. When unwelcome ideas are decried in the language of pain and injury, the impulse to suppress them—rather than to challenge and debate them—can be irresistible.  This is so because protection of students’ personal welfare always trumps other considerations—even intellectual diversity and freedom of speech.

College campuses, with their security guards and gated accommodations, are, in fact, very safe places. The world has no shortage of dangerous neighborhoods, but college classrooms, bulletin boards and student publications are not among them.  The latter are overwhelmingly safe, both in absolute and relative terms, notwithstanding the occasional graffiti of insults and indignities that, regrettably, are part of the background noise of  life in the age of social media.

Success in the real world demands a thick skin. Not every barbed comment is a casus belli. Not every fellow student born of  “privilege” is an enemy. And while one should never have to suffer bigotry, there is a difference between uttering fighting words and expressing an idea, however distasteful. A successful liberal arts education equips students to recognize real bias, to contest it, and to use verbal skill to disarm those who would act on it.

Kids will be kids. But where are the adults? Students experimenting with extremism need to be (and may even expect to be) confronted with limits prescribed by faculty and administrators committed to the rule of law and open debate. Instead, students discover that when they push, all restraints give way: deans resign; resistant teachers are discredited; college presidents beg for “dialogue.” The message conveyed to students is that coups are much more efficient than having to prevail in a free market of ideas.

Faculty and administrators need to find some backbone. Their mission is not to be popular but to teach. The terrorist attack in Paris offers them a teachable moment, an opportunity to open students’ eyes to the difference between truth and propaganda; between governing by fiat and governing by persuasion; between intellectual rigidity and intolerance, on one hand, and free and robust debate, on the other.

It’s not too late.

Peter Scheer, a lawyer and journalist, is executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. The views expressed here are his only; they do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of the FAC Board of Directors.




  1. Gordo says:

    I think what is even more ridiculous than the students themselves are the university presidents who wring their hands and bow to pressure to apologize for imaginary injustices; even resigning posts in some cases.

    These faculty members are just as bad as the parents for promulgating this charade.

    These skulls full of mush would rewrite history, at least the parts they find offensive, which is more reminicent of the Soviet Union. The difference of course is the communists had a clearly defined goal in rewriting their history. These clowns are either trying to find a way to blame someone or something for their lack of academic success, or in some cases they are just going along in the hopes of finding their next hook up for the night.

    (14) 18 Total Votes - 16 up - 2 down
  2. Rambunctious says:

    In the 60’s the student protesters were searching for more freedom. Freedom of assembly freedom of speech freedom to protest a war. Today’s student protesters are empty suits. They have no real gripe so they must make one up. White privileged? just what is that? I’ve yet to hear a clear explanation. I’m white and my childhood was far from privileged.
    If I were in charge I would bring back the draft. The military would provide a educational balance to the dribble that is taught on most of today’s campuses. Send the whiners to Syria, That will bring their emotions up to meet their age and maybe wake them up.

    (22) 30 Total Votes - 26 up - 4 down
  3. Slosum says:

    I spent my college years in the 60’s watching protests and those behind them. Although I agreed with some of the issues, I didn’t agree with many of the methods and in particular with the individuals who embraced those methods. They were driven by emotion… not common sense. There was no love for America and its ideals. America, in their eyes, was filled with problems that only a counterculture could solve. That… and anarchy. I experienced enough of that crap through the Bill Ayers’s and Bernadette Dorns and all the Weather Underground, SDSr’s’ and SLAr’s of that era. Well now they, and their Eloi… the delicate little free spirits and flower children of the era, are all grown up (not) and in charge of the universities and the government and the media because they couldn’t survive in the real world of self determination and confidence in their own abilities. They were, and are… incapable of creating a life of their own outside of these protected environments. None of their communes and “villages” survived. So guess what they HAVE created? A new generation of soft little pipsqueeks who are also incapable of self sufficiency and filled with angst. And so we have “safe spaces” to protect them from all those mean things lurking in the real world. And they’ll take their degrees in gender studies and social justice and tolerance 101 and become employed at those same universities and government bureaucracies to be coddled through life and pass their gas to the next bunch. That, instead of getting real jobs that actually create prosperity and lift people up though the (gasp) act of failing, trying again and ultimately experiencing what it means to live. And so the saga continues. It’s a real hoot… if it wasn’t so sad.

    (14) 28 Total Votes - 21 up - 7 down

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