In a recent discussion panel with conservative student group Turning Point USA, President Trump said the on-campus free speech crisis is “highly overblown.”
Specifically, Trump said, “If you look at what’s going on with free speech with the super left, with antifa, with all of these characters. I’ll tell you what, they get a lot of publicity, but you go to the real campuses, and you go all over the country, you go out to the Middle West, you go out even to the coast in many cases, we have a tremendous support. I would say we have majority support. I think it’s highly overblown. Highly overblown.”
Although a recent Gallup poll found the majority of college students support freedom of speech on their campuses, that same poll found that a majority of students also support restrictions against hate speech on campuses. Other research has shown college students and graduates actually support freedom of speech more than other demographic groups, and that support for our First Amendment rights has consistently risen over time (despite what present-day media reports might suggest).
So is the issue truly “overblown” like President Trump says it is? Consider these two perspectives:
Campus Diversity and Inclusiveness
On one hand, there’s the mentality that some groups of students have been historically oppressed or restricted from accessing the same educational and employment opportunities as other groups. In this sense, students believe there should be restrictions against hate speech targeting racial/ethnic minorities because they’ve already encountered this damaging treatment for decades, and that sexually-charged speech against predominantly female students should be considered harassment (and thus, banned) because it creates a fearful environment for those targeted by such comments.
As this humorous and informative video about political correctness from 8-Bit Philosophy explains, the climate of PC-ness might seem to be getting out of hand, but it’s not entirely bad. For instance, hate speech and verbal harassment on campus could drive students to drop out of college in fear for their safety. Advocates for restricting hate speech on college campuses thereby argue that doing so could offer a better learning environment and protect students against the negative psychological consequences of constant harassment.
Freedom of Speech for Political Minorities
In many universities across the U.S., students and faculty members are likely more liberal-leaning than conservative. From this perspective, conservative members of the campus community often feel as though they must restrain their speech and expression to avoid backlash from the politically correct crowd. Although there exist several conservative student clubs and organizations around the country, they tend to be outnumbered by their liberal counterparts.
It doesn’t help the issue that many college campuses limit free speech to certain designated areas and times of the day. These “free speech zones” have been ruled unconstitutional in several legal cases, but they nevertheless continue to exist on other campuses where they haven’t been challenged in court yet.
The question ultimately comes down to this: even if students largely disagree with certain viewpoints, should those viewpoints be marginalized or even silenced for the sake of political correctness or inclusion? Many First Amendment advocates say no, but the tension between freedom of speech and creating a safe learning environment for all students will likely remain a contentious issue for years to come.