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Why Students Don't Want Free Speech on Campus Anymore

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CHICAGO -- More and more, today's college students want professors and administrators to make them feel safe and will protest if they don't.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Higher Education (FIRE) is a nonprofit educational foundation that tracks speech on college campuses. The foundation recently captured cell phone video of a Yale University student publicly cussing at and denouncing Dr. Nicholas Christakis, a professor and master of Silliman College, a residence hall, at Yale.

"You should step down," the student screamed at Cristakis. "It is not about creating an intellectual space. It is not. It is about creating a home here."

His crime? Encouraging students to make their own decisions about what Halloween costumes to wear. The student (and many of her peers) wanted Yale to make rules about costumes.

Cancerous Censorship

At Yale, the University of Missouri, and elsewhere students are increasingly concerned about what they consider offensive. They're calling for more rules to limit what students can say.

"There are certain things that are right and wrong -- certain things that shouldn't be said about other people depending on what their minority, racial background, income status is," one University of Chicago student told CBN News.

In the last 20 years, such sentiment has led more than 400 universities to adopt speech codes. These codes consistently violate the First Amendment by prohibiting speech that is constitutional.

The codes often forbid speech that is disrespectful or offensive while the First Amendment, and many court decisions, allow for such speech.

Todd Zywicki, professor at George Mason University School of Law in Arlington, Virginia, spent the last five years working to reform the university's speech codes.

He said that sometimes students will be uncomfortable in college life as controversial ideas are debated.

"Of course we want to protect {them} from being actually harassed or intimidated. But merely expressing a view that makes other people feel uncomfortable is what a university is for," he explained.

"Censorship is like a cancer that eventually spreads out of control and eventually everyone has something to worry about," Dr. Mike Adams, at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, told CBN News.

Reforming 'Respect'

Like Zywicki, Adams is working to reform speech codes at his university. He's especially concerned about what's called the "respect compact," which calls for a "free exchange of thoughts and opinions within a climate of civility and respect."

In reality, Adams said it gives UNCW incredible power and the ability to punish anyone whose speech it deems to be disrespectful. 

"Offensive, disrespectful speech is the only thing that's ever really been protected by the First Amendment because that's the kind of thing that people might want to go after," Adams said.

UNCW student Alex Benson said he thinks the compact gets in the way of open debate on campus.

"I think it makes students hesitate," he said. "I sometimes hesitate to voice my opposing opinion because I don't want to upset the rest of the class or the prof."

Adams said such speech codes erode a robust understanding of the First Amendment over time.

"They become ingrained in the culture," he told CBN News. "And then students wake up one day and say, 'I do have a right to be safe. I do have a right to be free from speech that might make me feel uncomfortable or be an affront to my dignity.' And then boom--what do you have? You've got Yale and you've got Mizzou."

Reclaiming Free Speech

Right now, FIRE is following more than 200 universities that have substantially restrictive policies. The typical approach is codes that define harassment broadly, despite a narrow definition from the Supreme Court. 

"Harassment is severe, pervasive and so objectively offensive that it effectively denies a student the right to an education," Nico Perrino, associate director of communications at FIRE, told CBN News. "But you see universities adopting harassment codes that say something is harassment if it merely offends someone."

What's known as the "Chicago statement" is beginning to change the trend. The Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago released it in January 2015.

The statement holds a high view of the freedom of speech and notes that "concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be."

Six universities have followed the University of Chicago's lead this year and have created similar documents. University of Chicago Law Professor Geoffrey Stone, who served on the committee, said that most faculty and students support the statement although some students oppose it.

"I think they have been raised to be protected and to be shielded from risk," he told CBN News. "And they're therefore much more entitled in terms of feeling that they shouldn't be put in positions that make them uncomfortable."

The diversity movement has also played a role he said.

"Students who've been made uncomfortable have been empowered to express this in a more open way than in the past and that's not a bad thing," he said.

History Upside Down

It's a profound change for students to be the ones arguing for limited speech. Historically, it's been administrators or off-campus forces.

"The terrifying thing to me is that the current wave of censorship is coming from students, not from the faculty," Zywicki said.

"We've always been on the side of students," Perrino said. "And students have always been supportive in this fight for free speech. But now you have these disinvitations, these movements for safe spaces on campus."

This student movement has huge ramifications for the future of universities as well as for those who dare to disagree.

"The risk of standing up and saying 'No, we have to believe in free speech -- the proper response is not censorship' is that you get labeled a sexist or a racist and it very quickly winds up on social media and you can't get rid of that -- forever," Stone, a longtime First Amendment scholar, explained.

Dr. Everett Piper, president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, recently stood up, blogging that his school "is not a daycare."

Piper told CBN News that the response to his blog has been overwhelming.

"I think I started a grassfire by telling a college community that I want you to learn -- I don't want you to feel safe, per se," he said.

This battle between learning and safety may be just beginning. At its core, it's not just campus policies at stake but the hearts and minds of a new generation.

*Heather Sells also reported from Wilmington, North Carolina and Arlington, Virginia.

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About The Author


Heather Sells covers wide-ranging stories for CBN News that include religious liberty, ministry trends, immigration, and education. She’s known for telling personal stories that capture the issues of the day, from the border sheriff who rescues migrants in the desert to the parents struggling with a child that identifies as transgender. In the last year, she has reported on immigration at the Texas border, from Washington, D.C., in advance of the Dobbs abortion case, at crisis pregnancy centers in Massachusetts, and on sexual abuse reform at the annual Southern Baptist meeting in Anaheim