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.


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It seems to me a lot of people who attack the concept of “political correctness” are just unhappy they are being called out on their own bigotry and intolerance.

Oh, if life were only that simple….

Mr. Peter Scheer,

Just for the record next time, you’re misusing the term “God” as being singular overall for every faith, of which cannot be true. Pertaining to the Jihadists of mention that read from the Qur’an, you have to be specific and state that their barbarism manifests the will of ALLAH God. Conversely, if Christians are involved in manifesting their God for, let’s say, killing Family Planning doctors, then they do it under their God named Yahweh.

To some divisions of the Christian faith, Jesus is in fact the Trinity of being Yahweh, Son, and the Holy Ghost combined. Therefore, if need be, the Christians would kill in the name of Jesus.

The biblical era had created “many Gods,” all provincial to their lands, of which some still prevail at this time, and that are mutually exclusive to each other from the time of their beginnings in religious history, up until the present day.


And I read it again and Perry’s article is actually worse than I first thought. His comparison to ISIS is downright shameful. His piece is laced with militant innuendo –jihadi, uprising, orthodoxy, fearful, intolerance, any criticism, any dissent or disagreement, extremism, casus belli, enemy, truth and propaganda etc.

And finally he ends with accusing the students of engaging in a coup. A coup, Really Peter? Students protesting is now a coup to you? How is it that you can talk about the free market and not see that the free market is exactly what a student protest is? You so readily claim that the fact that you don’t like their message is not your gripe yet that’s exactly what your gripe is. There simply is no other explanation why you would try to call a student protest a violent overthrow of government. Peaceful protest is the antithesis of a coup. And if a President or Chancellor cannot take the heat in his own kitchen and chooses to resign, isn’t that the free market too? Isn’t that exactly what is supposed to happen in a free market? If the President is so valuable, then another institution will pick him up (Presidents can be phenomenal at fundraising) in a heartbeat right Peter? That’s the free market in action. Like a great quarterback who is ousted from the team because the owner or teammates doesn’t/don’t like him, other teams line up to scoop him up. Free market in action.

For the record, the student’s movement doesn’t resonate with me but I’m not living in Mississippi seeing what life is like there day in and day out. And I don’t think the free market liked it either as it seems to have already died out–that is if you can even call one University- Mississippi and a couple of small groups at 2-3 other universities a movement. A couple of protests at 2 or 3 universities out of the probably 10,000 or so academic institutions across America is the overwhelming exception not the rule.

I realize this opinion piece is just meant to call our attention to the paradox of free-thinking college students who would stifle free speech in favor of personal security. Yet isn’t this exactly what many of our so-called political leaders support doing to keep the “Homeland” safe?

I don’t think saying and doing stupid things is just a college student thing. Saying and doing stupid things afflicts the adult population as well, particularly politicians and especially Republicans, especially the current crop of (un) presidential candidates, particularly the “Unbelievable” Mr. Trump and the “Joseph built the Pyramids” Carson M.D.,

How do these adults who say and do stupid things win the support of so many Americans? The problems stupid college kids create don’t hold a candle to the problems stupid adults create.

Yet, the source of both college student stupidity and stupidity of politicians seems to be a narcissistic predilection to take offense at opposing ideas as if the idea were a threat to cause bodily harm. There are real threats out there to both our physical bodies and our metaphysical body-politic, but narcissistic overreaction is virtually guaranteed to make the threat worse in both the short-term, but definitely the long–term.

Grow up kids. Helicopter mommy and daddy wronged you by not letting you fail.


“When did they become so emotionally frail that even the hint of criticism”?

1. When they stopped keeping score at youth events

2. Mandatory participation

3. Participation ribbons

4. Graduations ceremonies after KG, 1st Grade…….

5. Discipline = verbal and physical abuse of a child

6. Parents allowed to keep children from participating in PE or other school activities without a doctors note.

7. These kids are now parents.

I saw the beginning of the end years ago when a car stopped in front of our house to scold my mother for letting us play outside in the rain.

Enjoyed your opinion Peter.

It’s just the student who whine that are like Isis? Where do you come up this crap?


A non whining adult

Years ago, when I first read about “politically correct” speech, I thought someone was joking. Surely, no one could possibly believe that you solve social problems by banning certain words and substituting in others. Surely people must realize that the new words mean the same thing as the old ones, and nothing has really changed…

Nope. People actually bought into the nonsense.

As this ridiculous means of avoiding dealing with our real problems began to spread, I I thought ours must be the only culture in the world silly enough to believe that it could solve its problems in this totally-superficial way. Unfortunately, the concept has spread even further, and the results are not good.

You don’t make things better by changing some terminology and pretending everything is OK. Hiding from and ignoring problems through changes in terminology just makes the problems worse, and it gives a few unpopular words way too much power- power they don’t deserve.

Great article, very well written, and the author is 100% correct, except for that last sentence.


are you complaining about them complaining? Yup, I think you are. Also, I’m not really seeing the analogy between ISIS and young adults on college campuses overexercising their free speech rights. Seems to me ISIS doesn’t go to college and ISIS doesn’t respect free speech, not even a little bit, so the two ideologies are at opposite ends of the spectrum.

“The message conveyed to students is that coups are much more efficient than having to prevail in a free market of ideas.”


Huh? You might want to look up the word coup before you through it around so casually. A coup is a violent takeover of government. The kids did not stage a coup. What they did is use their free market rights to protest. Yes, the young adults actually did the exact thing you encourage them to use–the free market. And guess what, if the free market doesn’t like their overexercising of protest rights or their protesting over ridiculous or non-existent issues, the free market will gobble them up and spit them out.