Students on college campuses can’t agree on what represents legitimate free speech, and neither can Congress, with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee arguing Tuesday about where to strike a balance.
“Where do you draw the line?” asked Sen. John Kennedy, R-La. “I don’t want a speaker to come to a university and use a racial epithet repeatedly. … I don’t consider that to be adding to public discourse.”
But Kennedy said he’s disturbed about incidents such as one earlier this year at Middlebury College in Vermont, in which protesters shouted down speaker Charles Murray, who co-write “The Bell Curve,” which links intelligence to class and race.
“But on the other hand, if somebody wants to come and discuss ‘The Bell Curve’ and is hooted down … I don’t see anything wrong with that (discussion). So who wants to tell me how to draw that line?”
Some college students – such as Zach Wood, a senior at Williams College, a liberal arts school in Williamstown, Massachusetts – told senators at Tuesday’s hearing that there’s an infringement of First Amendment rights on campuses that has become “undemocratic.”
Wood, a self-identifying liberal Democrat who “agrees with some progressive causes,” told the senators he’s made a lot of people on his campus angry in trying to push his intellectual limits and “confront controversy” at Williams. To do that, he joined Uncomfortable Learning, a student group that promotes discourse through bringing provocative, controversial speakers to the campus.
After the group this past year invited John Derbyshire – a controversial columnist whose writings have been called racist and homophobic – the school’s president canceled the event and administrators changed school policy for inviting speakers. Wood said he couldn’t think of any conservative officials who have come to talk on the campus.
“Instead of nurturing thoughtful debate on controversial topics, many college educators and administrators discourage free debate by shielding students from offensive views,” said Wood, who is now president of the student group. “What I find impermissible and undemocratic and antithetical to the intellectual character of the college that I attend is the president’s decision to dis-invite the speaker solely on the basis of his inflammatory remarks about race.”
In recent years, several universities – both public and private – have faced conflicts involving free speech. The University of California, Berkeley, has been under fire in recent months for canceling speeches of conservative figures including political commentator Ann Coulter. Three students, all of whom support Young Americans for Liberty, were arrested at Kellogg Community College in September while handing out pocket Constitutions in a public area of the campus. And students have shut down events featuring controversial speakers at campuses around the country.
Wood cited a campus “echo chamber” where “liberal arguments are often treated as unquestionable truths,” and right-leaning students are afraid to share their views.
Some senators agreed with him.
“Those who would curtail free speech have been emboldened, and those who disagree with the prevailing orthodoxy have been censored or chilled from speaking freely,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the committee’s chairman, who called the hearing to air concerns about free speech on campus. “On too many campuses today, free speech appears to be sacrificed at the altar.”
But no matter how offensive an individual or group’s rhetoric may be, their speech is still protected under the First Amendment, argued Sen. Ted Cruz.
“The Ku Klux Klan are a bunch of racist, bigoted thugs with a right to express their views. And we have an obligation then to confront their views – which are weak, poisonous and wrong – and confront them with the truth,” said Cruz, R-Texas. “It’s tragic what is happening at so many American universities, where college administrators and faculty have become complicit in functioning essentially as speech police.”
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s top Democrat, argued, though, that when speech isn’t peaceful and causes a disturbance, administrators should be able to restrict it.
“When you have a set group of people that come to create a disturbance … what do you do?” she said, adding that universities don’t always have enough resources to deal with these groups in necessary instances. “I do believe that the university has a right to protect its students from demonstrations once they become acts of violence.”
In the months since President Donald Trump’s election, white nationalist and alt-right groups have taken to college campuses with posters containing racist messages. These posters, along with speakers like ex-Breitbart news editor Milo Yiannopoulos, have drawn protests from members of multiple campus communities, sometimes sparking violence.
And given the country’s current climate, there will likely be more violent confrontations at universities in the future, testified Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups nationwide.
Frederick Lawrence, secretary and CEO of Phi Beta Kappa Society – a liberal arts and sciences honor society – told senators the line between allowing and restricting speech should not rest on violence, but rather whether it is threatening, adding that a campus speaker also should be willing to answer questions and engage in discourse.
“We have a moral obligation to respond to hate speech – not to suppress it,” he said.
The right to free speech comes with responsibility and accountability, but protecting it has become “increasingly challenging” with so many diverse viewpoints, said Fanta Aw, American University’s interim vice president of campus life, at the hearing.
And with the coinciding national political polarization, Grassley said, “we ought to be concerned.”
Note: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the arrests of three college students at Kellogg Community College last September.