Constitutionally guaranteed rights are the cornerstone of American freedoms. Much of the conversation around rights in recent years has centered around how far they extend without infringing on other individuals’ freedoms. The debate over the Second Amendment has garnered the most attention recently with Democrats hankering to pare back gun rights in the name of public safety, even if it won’t have much effect. The Patriot Act has also been under scrutiny for infringing on the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, and the Affordable Care Act grossly undermining the Tenth Amendment. Still, the First Amendment is arguably the most important of these rights, and it has been quietly getting assaulted on college campuses for the last few years by college students who wish to be coddled and shielded from ideas that differ from their own.
The most recent high profile case occurred over the last week and is still ongoing as Yale University students have begun fighting a teacher’s first amendment defense over a silly Halloween costume policy. Many of the students want the school to stifle free expression entirely when it comes to costumes and portrayals, as well as to silence faculty members when they disagree.
The short and dirty version is that the school sent out guidelines for costumes that should avoid racially insensitive and derogatory costumes of all types, a seemingly reasonable request. However, one faculty member, Erika Christakis, took issue with it, penning a letter that decried the level of censorship and prudity that has overtaken college campuses in recent years. That’s when the students decided they were not going to stand for Christakis having an opinion of her own.
700 of the students wrote a second letter and even organized a rally to protest her statements. For her part, Christakis apologized for anybody taking offense at her statements, but that she “stand(s) behind free speech. I defend the right of people to speak their minds.”
This is only the latest in a series of problematic events at schools where students have actively argued against the freedom of expression, demanding to be coddled. If you are familiar with the terms “trigger warning” or “microaggression,” then you know what we are referring to. Basically, trigger warnings are alerts for people who have had traumatic experiences or who are otherwise sensitive may find certain works or statements offensive or downright distressing. Microaggressions are typically innocent statements that can be taken as offensive by people who like to read way too much into things. Take this scene from Seinfeld as a prime example of a microaggression against the Chinese mailman (though the end is a bit more blatantly racist with Kramer’s actions). Hell, one case even involved Harvard students asking that the country’s preeminent law school refrain from teaching rape law because of potential triggering concerns. Let us repeat that so you can fully grasp the implications: In order to avoid offense some students want the top lawyers in the country be completely unprepared to penalize the very crime they find so offensive as to not be mentioned. It’s like they saw the Harry Potter films and thought the Ministry of Magic was onto something by burying their heads in the sand and doing everything they could to be unprepared for actual threats.
Some schools have begun fighting back against the assaults on academic freedom, with American University’s faculty even voting in favor of a resolution that calls for trigger warnings to be left out of libraries there. In fact, many campus faculties across the nation are arguing that censoring or otherwise using trigger warnings would not only hinder academic integrity, but render much of their curriculum impossible. How could one teach a class on Greek mythology without discussing rape or American literature without references to the racism and sexism that were prevalent throughout much of our history?
Of course, there is a difference between freedom of expression and being overtly racist, sexist, or otherwise bigoted. Take the Washington Redskins controversy. A professional football team that has a blatantly racist moniker but stand by it. Of course, their freedom of speech gives them the right to do so, but they can be denied additional protections such as copyright protection for continuing to use the name.
College campuses are supposed to be the place where people are exposed to new ideas and alternative viewpoints. Sometimes those viewpoints and ideas are terrible and even downright offensive to many, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist and should be recoiled from. In fact, the most important learning experience any student can have is to be challenged with ideas and viewpoints that are different from their own. Sometimes their own viewpoint can be shifted, sometimes they can shift the alternative viewpoint and, ideally, everybody learns something from the exchange.
That’s not what the students on today’s campuses want, sadly. Many want to shout down ideas they disagree with and silence those who have as much right to their views as they do. Hopefully this latest episode at one of the country’s premier institutions will allow for engagement rather than fearful rancor.