Below is my column on free speech on college campuses and the courageous decision of the University of Chicago to reject “safe spaces” and speech regulation. We are facing a growing movement to curtail free speech on campuses. Conservatives rightfully complain that they are being silenced as hecklers bar speakers and administrators punish unpopular speech. The forced silence of students and faculty will be the death knell for American higher education. Too many faculty are unwilling to speak against these measures in fear that they will be labeled racist or micro aggressors. Others like University of Chicago Professor Eric Posner have readily embraced speech regulations by belittling college students as just impressionable children.
They think universities are treating students like children. And they are right. But they have also not considered that the justification for these policies may lie hidden in plain sight: that students are children. Not in terms of age, but in terms of maturity. Even in college, they must be protected like children while being prepared to be adults.
So now people who are adults legally will be dismissed as children to justify the imposition of speech codes where faculty dictate what is acceptable or unacceptable viewpoints. It is incumbent upon the rest of us to fight the rising tide of speech regulation and intolerance. To that end, every faculty senate should consider replicating the letter of the University of Chicago to its incoming class, as discussed in the column below.
The University of Chicago last week promised incoming students something that is increasingly rare in the United States: an unfettered and uncensored education. While most schools are actively curtailing free speech, its letter warned the students that they will not be protected against ideas or given “safe spaces.” Instead, they will be educated in an open and free environment where they will be challenged by a range of different views — ideas that will at times thrill and at times outrage them.
Where a campus was once viewed as a free-speech zone by definition, many schools now designate isolated spaces for free speech while guaranteeing students “safety zones” to protect them against opposing views.
When I attended the University of Chicago in the 1980s, I found myself in the midst of an intellectually vibrant community with a cacophony of voices, from Trotskyites to black nationalists to radical feminists to creationists. Then-President Hanna Gray told us that “education should not be intended to make people comfortable; it is meant to make them think.” And it did. Students thought a lot about where they fit in this world of ideas.
Tragically, fewer and fewer students will experience such an awakening today as officials impose de facto speech codes. These ambiguous codes often define prohibited speech by how it is received by others — allowing the most sensitive or vocal members to define the permissible speech on campus. For example, the University of North Dakota bans student speech that “feels offensive” or “demeaning.” Many schools are also embracing the ill-defined notion of “microaggressions” — speech considered “negative” or “reinforcing” stereotypes. For example, saying that America is “the land of opportunity” is considered a microaggression at North Carolina State University, while “melting pot” is deemed such a violation at Berkeley.
Schools are increasingly yielding to the “heckler’s veto” where protesters routinely stop people from speaking if they disagree with what they are saying. Just a few miles north of the University of Chicago, DePaul University allowed a handful of students to shut down conservative speaker Milo Yiannopoulos in May as school security just stood by. Recently, the school canceled another conservative speaker to avoid protests.
The students of the 1960s who fought the “establishment” have now become faculty members playing the role of censors — choosing arbitrarily between permitted and prohibited speech:
• At Dartmouth, Black Lives Matter protesters burst into the Baker-Berry Library and prevented students from studying or even leaving as some screamed racial epithets: “F–k you, you filthy white f–ks!” “F–k you and your comfort!” and “F–k you, you racist shits!” Vice Provost for Student Affairs Inge-Lise Ameer actually apologized to the protesters for all the negative comments directed at their conduct.
• A columnist at Berkeley wrote about “white devils,” students living off-campus at Claremont said they were looking for a roommate “of color,” and the University of Connecticut set up a living space designed to be supportive of black male students. Resident advisers at the State University of New York even created a course entitled “Stop White People,” and weren’t disciplined. Yet Rohini Sethi, Houston University’s student body vice president, was suspended for posting her view that “all lives matter” on social media. And Georgia Southern University student Emily Faz was the target of stalking and death threats after criticizing Black Lives Matter on Facebook; she had to take time off from her job to protect her co-workers.
• Tulane students tore down a “Trump wall” at a fraternity off campus without any sanction, but when someone wrote “Trump” on sidewalks in chalk, Emory issued a long letter commiserating with the students who were offended by the supposed intimidation.
• Boston University sociology professor Saida Grundy posted a series of racist screeds against white people but retained her job. Memphis professor Zandria Robinson was hired by Rhodes College after denouncing whites and insisting that “whiteness is most certainly and inevitably terror.” There is little doubt what would have happened to a professor who said the inverse of such statements about minorities.
Even criminal acts can be excused in the name of progressive causes. Mireille Miller-Young, a feminist studies associate professor at the University of California, led students in attacking pro-life demonstrators and tearing up their display. The faculty overwhelmingly supported Young, who retained her job even after being convicted of criminal assault.
I have discussed this with many faculty and students who are fearful to speak up. No one wants to be declared a microaggressor or sent to sensitivity training.
Where students once suffered from the fear of public speaking (glossophobia), they are now taught to fear public speakers. We are raising a generation of speechphobic, hypersensitive citizens. Students forced Clemson to apologize for their Mexican food night, Dartmouth students forced the cancellation of a Kentucky Derby celebration, Oberlin students opposed the serving of sushi, Ottawa students forced the suspension of yoga classes, and Bowdoin students pushed to sanction student government officers who attended a “fiesta” (thrown by a Latino student) where people wore sombreros. All were denounced as microaggressions or “cultural appropriations.”
There is an alternative stated in the U-Chicago letter: “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”
There is a word for that. It is “education.”
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.