A View from College Hill
Free Speech on Campus
By David Wippman
Scarcely a day goes by without an article or an op-ed reporting on a new campus free speech controversy. At a number of colleges and universities across the country, prominent speakers have been disinvited, shouted down, and in some cases physically attacked.
Sensing an opportunity, some speakers and groups have deliberately sought out college campuses as fora for remarks intended more to inflame than to inform. Few things seem to please them more than eliciting a violent response from their critics.
Increasingly, people with no connection to a campus are showing up to wage ideological combat. In some cases, pitched battles have broken out, forcing college authorities to spend tens of thousands of dollars, sometimes hundreds of thousands, to protect invited speakers and ensure student safety.
In order to understand student attitudes toward free speech, John Villasenor, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, recently surveyed 1,500 undergraduates at a wide range of colleges and universities across the country. His findings, which are consistent with a number of other recent surveys, are cause for concern.
According to Villasenor’s report, many students mistakenly believe the First Amendment does not protect hate speech. In fact, hate speech, while abhorrent, is largely protected under the First Amendment.
It is true, of course, that as a private institution, the First Amendment does not apply to Hamilton as it does to a public institution. But because the free exchange of ideas is central to our mission, we (like most private colleges and universities) adhere to First Amendment principles. And that’s why some of Villasenor’s other findings are so troubling.
According to his survey, a majority of undergraduates believe it is permissible to shout down an invited speaker, if the speaker is expected to make offensive and hurtful statements. And almost 20 percent believe it is permissible to use violence to prevent such a speaker from speaking.
Why do so many students feel this way? To their credit, today’s students recognize the undeniable harms caused by speech that stigmatize members of underrepresented communities. They want to foster a safe and inclusive learning environment for all students. Abstract claims that free speech protections played a key role in the civil rights movement and historically have benefitted members of disadvantaged groups do not resonate with many students. Many see firsthand the harms caused by hateful rhetoric, on campus and off, and have not witnessed the harms that can occur when governments or institutions are entrusted with the power to censor.
Suppressing speech, even offensive speech, runs counter to the aims of a liberal education. More than 50 years ago, during another period of political unrest on college campuses, our faculty ratified that view by adopting the following policy:
Free inquiry and free expression are indispensable to the attainment of those goals to which Hamilton College is dedicated. All members of the college community should be free to examine and discuss all questions of interest to them, to express opinions, and to question but not suppress the opinions of others. ... [A]ctions by individuals or groups to prevent speakers invited to the campus from speaking, to disrupt the operation of the institution, or to restrain others by physical force cannot be tolerated.
How then should we deal with speakers who express views that denigrate members of vulnerable groups or otherwise offend values important to our community? There are a wide range of possibilities, ranging from condemning such speech to counterprogramming to peaceful and nondisruptive protest.
Perhaps most important, we can find ways to express in positive terms community values of diversity and inclusion and use our own speech to build the kind of community we want Hamilton to be.