The War on Free Speech

July 2, 2021
"For the people to rule wisely, they must be free to think and speak without fear of reprisal.....and we must have these rights, even if they are misused by a minority.” James Madison

In 1964, Mario Savio called for a protest against university restrictions on free-speech rights at Berkeley and the remainder to the University of California system. Savio’s call to action was “personal is political.” The FSM believed that all points of view, no matter how controversial,  must be heard, and it was up to the listener to make their individual decision. But under no circumstances should their right to speak be abridged. This was the birth of the Free Speech Movement. (FSM)

Fast forward February 2017. Berkeley students deny First Amendment rights when they engaged in a violent protest to stop Milo Yiannopoulos from delivering a speech on campus. The protest engaged in violence. Stones and fireworks were hurled at police, windows were shattered, many were injured. It is interesting that this violent protest against free speech would be waged at the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement. (FSM)

The University of California Berkeley is not the only college or university allowing these unconstitutional actions by on campus organizations. In most cases it is an action taken by college administrators as a “quick fix” to address campus tensions. Unfortunately, social change only comes when we take the time to analyze the underlying causes of the discontent not by restricting or purifying the issues, and, certainly not by creating safe spaces. A safe space is a designated place on campus where people are not subject to the biases, discrimination, and criticism of the outside world. Really?

What is going on in this country? Cancel Culture? Critical Race Theory? Trigger Warnings? Let’s start with Trigger Warnings. Think about applying a rating system to college classes similar to the motion picture industry. Warn the students that the content of the class might be G, generally no offensive material to be discussed, or it could be EP, emotionally provocative and course content will cover highly controversial topics  some may find upsetting. The problem with this approach is that many colleges and universities expect these students to act like mature critical thinking adults but treat them as though they are immature children.

Critical Race Theory. According to a variety of  internet resources a consultant was brought into the U.S. Department of the Treasury to tell staff that virtually all white  people contribute to racism, and they must take up the responsibility to make converts of everyone in the federal government to the ideology of antiracism. In similar training at Sandia National laboratories (nuclear weapons research) senior level white executives were told that their “white male culture was analogous to the KKK.” (Imprimis) Coca-Cola employees were urged to be "less white" as part of the company's diversity training. This is the governments new definition of “anti-racism.” Deja Vue, a brave new world?

In their book The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, explore the change that has precipitated this new approach. Colleges and university professors and administrators have developed a belief that young people are inherently fragile and must be protected from the harmful impacts of speech on issues that conflict with their own.

Lukianoff and Haidt argue  “three Great Untruths, or bad ideas have gained a strong foothold among young people, especially those on college campuses.

  • You must strive to avoid bad experiences at all costs.
  • You must always trust your emotions over reason.
  • The world is a black-and-white battle between good people and bad people; there is no middle ground.”

This attitude has a negative impact on academic freedom. It clearly undermines the democratic process. It certainly will have a negative impact on the social and emotional development of students. As a university instructor, I believe that the most important thing I can do for students is to make them uncomfortable. I am convinced the only way a student will learn something meaningful is when I, as their instructor, can make them feel powerful enough to take risks, and question the status quo.

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