Home » News » As a new generation rises, tension between free speech and inclusivity on college campuses simmers

By Collin Binkley, AP Education Writer, published on February 28, 2024

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A passerby walks through a gate to the Harvard University campus, Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2024, in Cambridge, Mass. AP Photo/Steven Senne

WASHINGTON (AP) — Generations of Americans have held firm to a version of free speech that makes room for even the vilest of views. It’s girded by a belief that the good ideas rise above the bad, that no one should be punished for voicing an idea — except in rare cases where the idea could lead directly to illegal action.

Today, that idea faces competition more forceful and vehement than it has seen for a century.

On college campuses, a newer version of free speech is emerging as young generations redraw the line where expression crosses into harm. They draw lines around language that ostensibly leads to damage, either psychological or physical. Their judgments weigh the Constitution but also incorporate histories of oppression.

“We believe in a diverse set of thoughts,” says Kaleb Autman, a black student at the University of Wisconsin whose group is demanding a zero-tolerance policy on hate speech. “But when your thought is predicated on the subjugation of me or my people, or to a generalized people, then we have problems.”

A new understanding of free speech has been evolving on college campuses for years, but the Israel-Hamas war and its rhetoric appear to be widening the fault lines.

It came to a head in December when leaders of three elite colleges were called to Congress to testify on campus antisemitism. They took a stand for free expression as the Constitution defines it, then faced weeks of backlash as opponents called them soft on antisemitism.

The fallout contributed to the Jan. 2 resignation of Harvard University President Claudine Gay, who faced mounting allegations of plagiarism that surfaced after the hearing. Her resignation followed the December ouster of Liz Magill of the University of Pennsylvania, who rethought her approach to free speech amid the blowback, suggesting that rules rooted in the Constitution aren’t adequate anymore.

Campuses across the nation have confronted rising tensions. Debate has raged over whether to police phrases such as “from the river to the sea” and “intifada” — often used as pro-Palestinian chants but lately also seen by some as calls for the genocide of Jews.

Those types of phrases, however some perceive them, are “clearly constitutionally protected,” says Erwin Chemerinsky, a law scholar and dean of the law school at the University of California, Berkeley. Yet on all sides of the issue, he says, today’s students want to quash speech they don’t like, regardless of its legality.

“What I always hear now is how, when students are upset or offended, they phrase it as, ‘I feel unsafe.’ And I think it’s so important that we separate out the campus’s duty,” he says. “It’s not our role to make them safe from ideas that they don’t want (to be) exposed to. But that line, I think, has gotten blurred.”

The shifting lines have become visible as colleges reach diverging conclusions on hate speech. After the congressional hearing, Stanford University and Cornell University declared that calls for genocide would indeed violate their conduct codes. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul told the state’s public universities that such a call should face “swift disciplinary action.”

At the same time, the latest battle has seen a reversal of sorts in the allegiances over free speech.

Republicans, who have long characterized colleges as liberal hotbeds that stifle free speech, are now calling on those institutions to curb speech seen as antisemitic. Colleges previously accused of ceding ground on free speech are suddenly its strongest defenders.

“The thing that I don’t know is, does anyone really have a principled position on this? Or is it just about the politics?” says Genevieve Lakier, a First Amendment scholar at the University of Chicago. She fears allegations of antisemitism are being used as a weapon to silence pro-Palestinian speech.

In nearly 20 years as president of Augustana College, Steven Bahls saw the generational change play out. When confronted with speech disputes in the past, he could settle them by applying the Constitution. At some point, emotion came to dominate the debate.

“Students expect the college president to be on their side,” says Bahls, a lawyer by trade. “And you know, you can’t blame them. They’re paying a lot for their education, and to show students that you’re on their side doesn’t mean you have to agree with them politically.”

To students, it’s complex. Max Zimmerman says he is a firm supporter of the First Amendment. But in the aftermath of Oct. 7, he says it’s sometimes scary being a Jewish student at Towson University, near Baltimore. In a campus plaza, a chalkboard meant to encourage civil discourse often displays anti-Israel phrases. Protesters on campus have chanted “from the river to the sea.”

“A phrase that has a hidden phrase, like calling for the mass genocide of the Jews, stuff like that shouldn’t be allowed on college campuses,” he says.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a coalition of black students demanded a ban on hate speech in 2023 after a white student used racial slurs in a video that spread on social media. The university said it couldn’t punish constitutionally protected speech.

“How are we supposed to be protected by a document that at one point would have allowed for the enslavement of me as a black person?” says Autman, a senior. “We should not wait for harm or violence to be inflicted for us to combat it.”

Colleges are caught in the middle: Standing up for offensive speech could draw accusations of antisemitism, while adding limits to speech could bring its own legal challenges.

William Adams, a former president of Colby College in Maine, says the solution lies somewhere between. The drift away from a classical view of free speech has left even progressive faculty fearful they will be punished for verbal missteps. At the same time, he says, colleges have a duty to meet the changing expectations of an increasingly diverse student body.

“Something has got to really be rearranged in these settings without a return to hard-nosed constitutionalism, because I don’t think that’ll work either,” he says. “We have to get to a place where there isn’t this tension.”

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