Saturday, September 19, 2020

Freedom of Speech on College Campuses

While diversity of all kinds is undoubtedly crucial to success in academic environments, more and more college campuses across the country seem to flaunt one glaring omission: that of opinion and, more specifically, political belief.

This exception was underscored most recently by the actions of students at Evergreen State College, a small liberal arts college in Olympia, Washington. The school’s website boasts of both diversity and progressively, but events over the past two months paint a markedly different picture.

Inspired by the 1965 play “Day of Absence,” students and staff at Evergreen have, for almost 50 years, organized their own annual Day of Absence to highlight the indispensable roles assumed by minorities at the school. Traditionally, this event involves the voluntary absence of students and faculty of color from campus. This year, though, a different idea was proposed: white participants would be asked to leave campus for the day instead.

If this idea sounds counterintuitive to the intended effect of such a day – that is, to begin a constructive dialogue amongst a diverse student body regarding the role of race and difference – that’s because it is. Evergreen professor Bret Weinstein seemed to think so, too. But when he expressed his dissent, stating that he would not be complying with what he called the “oppressive” request to leave campus because of his skin color, he became the target of what can only be described as a political witch-hunt.

As soon as students caught wind of Weinstein’s refusal to leave campus, accusations ensued. Students interrupted his class to demand his resignation, accusing him of racism and white supremacism, later vandalizing his building with the image of a swastika. In a video posted to Facebook by a protester, a student responds to Weinstein’s call for a more productive discussion by saying, “We are not speaking on terms of white privilege. This is not a discussion. You have lost that one.”

The morning of June 1, school officials made the decision to close campus, citing a “direct threat to campus safety” as their reason. Told by police that it’s unsafe for him to be on campus, Weinstein has not yet returned to his job, and is unsure if it will ever become possible for him to do so.

This incident is just one of many disturbing instances of the smothering of free speech on college campuses. Last year, a Yale faculty member and her husband stepped down from their positions after an email challenging Halloween costume guidelines sparked protests that eventually led to threats and demands for their resignation. In February, violent revolts at UC Berkeley resulted in the cancelling of conservative Milo Yiannopoulos’ speaking gig; fellow conservative Ann Coulter experienced the same cancellation a few months later.

When students and universities take part in the same bigotry they claim to abhor, it begs the question: by participating in this behavior – behavior that threatens not only the freedom of peers and faculty to express their beliefs in a safe environment, but also the tenets that make up the very foundation of our country – what are students hoping to achieve? And how are universities condoning this behavior when it jeopardizes the very principles upon which they stand? Instead of being taught to stand up for their beliefs by way of discussion, students are learning that it’s more effective to threaten, to accuse, and to silence. Instead of preparing students for life beyond the “safe space” of the college campus, universities are coddling them, refusing to enforce accountability for actions that defy everything our country’s educational institutions are supposed to represent.

What students fail to understand is that censoring beliefs they disagree with does not make these beliefs disappear; it simply moves the discussion elsewhere. College is supposed to be the place where diversity of opinion is cherished most, the intellectual birthplace of the leaders and scholars of our next generation. But as college campuses become its greatest silencer, it’s clear that we have forgotten the importance of difference—that progress is born not of intimidation but of communication and respect, not only for those who agree with us, but also for those whose opinions couldn’t be further from our own.

Writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall summed it up eloquently more than a century ago, writing, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Perhaps today’s college students should take another look at those famous words—and at the Constitution, while they’re at it.

Writer Larissa Bersh, age 16, is a high school student attending Marco Island Academy. She will begin her senior year in the fall. Larissa writes on a variety of subjects that affect all generations. Coastal Breeze News hopes to bring readers more of Larissa’s work in future issues.

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