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Wednesday
Apr112018

Protecting Free Speech vs. Protecting Our Students

Today students on college campuses are protesting on numerous topics happening around the country.  These protest have led to acts of violence on campus, such as the University of Virginia and the University of California Berkeley.  These events challenge college administration to make tough decisions of either protecting free speech or their students. Texas A&M University, for example, has cancelled alt-right speakers on campus to protect the safety of the students, but is this impeding students’ freedom of speech?

In the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment states that everyone has the right to freedom of speech.  During the 1960s, most college campuses were not allowed to have freedom of speech but many still protested about civil rights and war issues, this lead to the Free Speech Movement. In 1968, the Court in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District ruled that students do not lose their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech when they are on school property.  After this ruling, college campuses began to regulate freedom of speech on campus, for example where can students protest, Bowman v. White, and when to stop a protest, People v. Uptgraft. Having this freedom on campus students were able to express their beliefs and were exposed to different points of views.  Free speech was unconformable but it gave students a chance to learn a diversity of viewpoints.

Today, some claim there are multiple issues caused by freedom of speech.  On campuses, speakers come and sometimes espouse hate.  Students then protest and feel unsafe.  Institutions begin to question balance between students’ First Amendment rights and their rights to an equal education.  This is why some limit free speech on campus.  However, denying speakers may influence the different values that make students feel uncomfortable and serve as a learning opportunity.  A student from Williams College was denied a conservative speaker because the college administrations assumed the speaker would promote hate speech.   If free speech is one of our rights, so why should students have to be limited on what they can say or do on campus? 

Students and administrations will need to balance free speech with student safety and determine safe venues for speaking events. With this hot issue on their minds, college presidents fear what will happen to their campus. How are college campuses going to keep their students safe?

Some schools are preparing their campus police and cancelling class to ensure that safety is maintained on campus.  Other college campuses are trying to be proactive by having students continue to protest but not to interrupt until Q&As.  Some campuses cancel the speakers from coming on campus.

College administrations are stuck in the middle between protecting their students and affording freedom of speech on campus.  While they want their students to feel safe on campus, they also want to afford free speech and diversity of viewpoints on campus.  So what should college campuses worry more about?  Supporting their students to express their freedom of speech or wanting the students to feel safe on campus?

This post was authored by April Vasquez, a masters student in Higher Education Administration at The University of Texas at San Antonio, and a pre-K teacher in the San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD). 

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Reader Comments (9)

Student safety is our first concern as educators and it should be with everyone on campus. Groups that sponser speakers should be aware of the issues that they are speaking of and be ready with security as well as a plan B option where students can debate in an educational setting as adults or half a Q&A time where students voices can be heard. We don't want to hold back issues from the students so that way they don't fight. We are not turning a blind eye but instead holding this speaking sessions as a way for both sides to communicate peacefully. Easy read and hot topic!

April 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJessica Redwine

The irony is that by protecting liberties like the Freedom of Speech we are protecting the safety of students. I know that their physical safety is important too, but students need to learn to control their behavior even against hate speech. Trashing the campus and yelling at speakers during their speech is simply inappropriate. We must guard the Constitution and its principles.

April 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterKyle Richey

Students should be able to freely express their speech, it's their right. However, I believe it's important to teach students, from a young age, how to be respectful of others even if you don't agree with their opinions. This will, ideally, reduce the violence around moments of free speech.

April 27, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterNelly Reyes

We know that there are exceptions to free speech such as inciting or producing "imminent lawless actions", Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 US 444 (1969), or distribution of obscene material, Miller v. California, 413 US 15 (1973), for example. In the same way, I strongly believe Hate Speech does not enjoy First Amendment Protections.

Hate Speech deliberately seeks to verbally abuse, humiliate, and crucify groups based on their race, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or disability. Thus, when hate speech is directed at particular individuals, it may cause real psychic harm and inflict burning and raging pain on a broader class of persons.

This type of assaultive speech has absolutely no place in Higher Education Institutions because there is inherently no dialogue. Defacing African-American Student housing with the word "niggers" or hosting a speaker with the agenda "10 Reasons Why I Hate Mexico" are fundamentally malicious to the college and university mission of creating an intellectual environment for the interchange of ideas.

From the student perspective, how can one be expected to perform at the highest standard you are being persecuted for something you cannot change? How can you focus in an environment of intimidation where hate speech is masked as "politically incorrect"?

As a future Higher Education Administrator, I will not stand to defend hate speech as constitutionally protected. Hate Speech fundamentally counters everything Higher Education is grounded in.

April 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDeon Turner

I like this topic because it defies an easy solution. I don't tend to view the issue of protecting student safety and protecting students' rights to free speech/expression as an either/or situation: both have to be protected, which is exactly why it's a challenge. Creating spaces for students who wish to protest a speaker can be challenging to facilitate effectively, and providing security during such events can be enormously costly for colleges. One component in this larger issue is the culture of the institution. Even as controversial or hate speech may occur on a campus, administrators have to be consistent, clear and forceful in defending the community standards they have established for their institution. That can include denunciation of hate speech and, equally importantly, proactive support for the students in the campus community who are targeted by hate speech.

When it comes to freedom of speech we can't censor what it is students say, even if we think it's terrible it is their right. Once we start on the path of censorship where does it end? That's the kind of argument I usually hate, but in this case I think it holds water. Censorship has ALWAYS been a sticky situation. Who defines hate speech? In my mind it can be anything that aggressively and negatively targets an underprivileged group. To someone who considers themselves "alt-right" this definition could, logically, fit them as well. Do we want to discourage our students from speaking against views that are so damaging? I think not.

I do think we have a responsibility to ensure we are keeping students as safe as possible, and warning them about these kinds of events when practical. The truth is, they will face views like this anytime they leave campus and we can't protect them from everything. I agree with Amelia's comment, the BEST thing we can do to ensure a safe campus where students feel welcomed and included, AND to discourage hate speech that doesn't align with our stated values is to change our campus culture and climate. Let the oft stated mission and vision of "diversity and inclusion" actually be reflected on your campus, in the actions of your staff, and in everyday tone and practice. This will do the most to prevent hate speeches from happening, and when they do they will be more likely to be ignored by a student population that simply doesn't interact with hostile viewpoints.

May 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSarah Borden

I loved this article. I think free speech is a really tough topic in general. I do believe in designated free speech areas. They do not have to be way out of the way. I actually really like how Texas State has their area set up so they are not blocking or disturbing classes, there are multiple exit points which also allows multiple point for faculty/staff/police to be stationed. To be fair all speech must be allowed no matter how much you dislike a certain group or topic. I do think think certain speech can be limited if a certain group is specifically being attacked. I think universities should offer or mandate more Ethics classes to teach students how to debate that way when conflicts do arise they can debate about it rather than turning to screaming and violence. Over all we need to remind students that while this is a place of learning and growth it is also a place where we respect one another.

May 7, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTarecka Payne

I agree that students and administrators need to find a balance between free speech and student safety. It is understandable that "safe-spaces" are created to find a way to either keep the student population safe, to not be distracting to classes, and to prevent negative outcomes of expressing free speech. However not all free speech safe spaces are created equal. Some spaces are located in the heart of campus so when one speaks, it provides a platform for all to hear. However, some colleges have a plot so smal,l less than one percent of its total campus, dedicated to a free speech safe space. If higher education is going to continue to use this practice, then there needs to be some blanket rules that protects its students from being shoved to the back corner of the campus where no on can hear them. Higher education administrators need to also find a way to teach their students about engaging in conversation and respecting other student's free speech. One idea for all incoming freshman, is they would have to take a mandatory class that teacher them to hear, respect, and acknowledge other's right to free speech and how to maneuver a conversation and an open space. This could help students digest diverse opinion that may or may not contradict with a student's belief. Together we can help campuses grow and maneuver through these new waters and find a common ground where everyone wins.

May 7, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Moya

This was an interesting article. One thing that I'm a proponent for is making sure that everyone does get their say because it is their constitutional right to do so,. I'm also a huge advocate for making sure that children at college aren't worried about who might come onto their campus and cause them harm. People give safe spaces a bad name just because they relate it to being soft or sensitive but I believe it helps protect students from having panic attacks or something in that area I believe each school should have a free speech area that is close to people who can hear them but far enough that it won't disrupt class time. That way when a student hears theres a protest or a rally happening in the free speech area, they can avoid that area and still go to class without having an anxiety attack. This sort of ties into your case study as well which I also enjoyed. I know all speech is hate speech until it starts to fall into inciting riots and things of that nature.

May 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMarcos Villarreal

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