A spike in campus activism -- some of it directed against speakers whose views offend -- has complicated free speech, says a new report. But the landscape is far from disastrous, as politicians, particularly in the Trump administration, depict it.
The 100-page compendium “Chasm in the Classroom: Campus Free Speech in a Divided America” from PEN America, a group of literary writers and editors, largely offers an encyclopedic look at the battles of free expression that have been waged on college campuses since the 2016 election.
Coinciding with President Trump taking office, many students have called for administrators to punish speech that they believe targets minorities in harmful ways. In some cases, most recently at Beloit College, students have blocked some speakers whose views they find objectionable.
These actions fueled Trump’s argument -- one supported by many other conservatives -- that universities are liberal bastions intent on squashing conservative perspectives. To address this perceived “crisis,” Trump last month signed an executive order that would cut federal research funding to institutions that do not comply with either First Amendment obligations -- for public universities -- or in the case of private colleges, their own stated policies.
But as the report states, many causes for which liberal students advocate (such as racial and LGBTQ equality) are legitimate and important. College leaders need not ban speech to take seriously attacks on these students. And students on both sides of the political spectrum have engaged in unhelpful and, for conservatives, intentionally provocative behavior, according to the report.
The responsibility of administrators, then, is both to try to understand these students’ grievances and to teach them about free speech and its historical importance in boosting progressive campaigns, such as the civil rights movement.
PEN disputes in the report Trump’s characterization of free speech as a “crisis.” Largely, the polarization on campuses reflects the greater mood of the country. But the PEN writers did “see a looming danger that our bedrock faith in free speech as an enduring foundation of American society could give way to a belief that curtailing harmful expression will enable our diverse population to live together peaceably.”
"Working with college leaders to promote education, understanding and dialogue will be key to ameliorating the deep polarization and distrust that have developed on college campuses," Jonathan Friedman, PEN America’s campus free speech project director, said in a statement. "We are at an inflection point where the risk is growing that today’s students will become alienated from the principles of free speech, wrongly believing that they do little more than provide cover for bigotry. As a new generation comes of age in a time of division and anxiety in our country, commentators, college administrators and policy makers need to cultivate an understanding and appreciation of free speech as the bedrock of an open, democratic and equitable society."
A Rise in Hate
As numerous groups have documented, bigotry against minorities has pervaded campuses in the last three years. PEN partially attributes this to Trump’s rhetoric during the campaign -- calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and saying falsely that he observed Muslims cheering as the World Trade Centers toppled on Sept. 11, for instance.
The report notes that a mere mention of Trump can’t be equated to hate speech, but that his name has been invoked in many prejudicial episodes on college campuses. PEN refers to an incident shortly after the election, when a Latina student at Lindenwood University returned to her dormitory to find that her roommate had constructed a makeshift barrier out of stray items in their room. A note had been posted a note that read, “HEY Maria, Trump won so here is a little preview of what’s to come. #wall.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks bigotry nationwide, estimated that the number of hate groups in the United States grew from 917 in 2016 to 1,020 in 2018, according to the report.
Literature advertising and espousing white nationalism has proliferated colleges as well, often anonymously and largely thought to be promoted by off-campus actors. The Anti-Defamation League tracked more than 300 cases of white nationalist propaganda on campuses last year.
White supremacy has been exposed much more openly on college campuses, too, most notably when white nationalists invaded the University of Virginia campus and the city of Charlottesville in 2017, chanting Nazi slogans and carrying torches.
One of the leaders of that group, Richard Spencer, is a prominent white supremacist who once pledged to break the hold that he claimed liberals had in higher education by going on a speaking tour of public campuses. His visits, which he said were deliberately meant to rile students, inspired riots and forced universities to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars for security. At the University of Florida in October 2017, the university hired armed guards to be stationed on the roof where Spencer was speaking.
"Far from taking place in isolation behind ivy-covered walls, today’s campus free speech controversies are inextricable from the social and political upheaval of this historical moment," Suzanne Nossel, PEN’s chief executive officer, said in a statement. "While we have never thought that there was a crisis per se when it comes to campus speech, there are legitimate concerns about ideas and viewpoints that have become hard to voice amid a climate of intense ideological rancor. While President Trump has spotlighted threats to speech emanating from the left, our analysis reveals that intolerance of opposing views cuts across the political spectrum."
The PEN report urges administrators to vociferously condemn this type of speech, even while permitting it. Their declarations can successfully communicate to students that while officials must abide by the First Amendment, they don’t agree with the message.
Tony Frank, the president of Colorado State University, forcefully condemned a series of incidents in the 2017-18 academic year, including a noose found in a residence hall and “Heil Hitler” written on a whiteboard. The president's statements eased student tensions, the report states.
And at Florida, during Spencer’s visit, President W. Kent Fuchs took to Twitter to disavow Spencer and advertised alternative programs the university was sponsoring that were intended to bring the campus together against Spencer’s ideas.
“Fuchs’s statement was powerful and unequivocal,” the report reads. “It clearly conveyed that although Spencer would be speaking in a university facility, the spirit of the institution would not be on his side. He left no question that the university and its administration were against Spencer’s message, and he encouraged students not to play into Spencer’s provocation game by trying to shut the appearance down and lending him a media spotlight.”