In 2015, the Asian American Student Association at Brandeis University posted several signs outside an academic hall for their classmates to view, hoping to spread awareness for Asian racism. Many of the signs brandished controversial Asian microaggressions, such as “Why can’t people learn English when they come to this country?,” and “Aren’t you supposed to be good at math?” While the display appeared to have a straightforward motive, for included in the project was a disclaimer that the students wished to “foster a healthy dialogue about racism in the Brandeis community,” a group of students interpreted the signs as microaggressions, and under Brandeis University speech codes that forbade “Material that [was] explicitly . . . offensive,” the Asian American Student Association had to take down their project. The association president then sent out an email to the entire student body apologizing for any “triggering” content that may have upset their classmates. Unfortunately, situations such as these are nothing uncommon on college campuses all over America in recent years. Speech codes and verdicts based on emotional reasoning like that of Brandeis University students severely dictate authoritative actions, limiting the rights of students not only by restricting what they can and cannot say, but also what they can and cannot advocate for, specifically, politically, or socially. One would think college faculty aim to encourage civil discourse on an important issue to engage both sides of an argument, as well as cultivate critical thinking in students for their own benefit. However, previous occurrences suggest that they instead discourage, discredit, and even advise against certain viewpoints for reasons surrounding controversy and not pertaining to the “politically correct” agenda of a college campus. In order to promote American principles of democracy–a highly overlooked aspect of a valuable and successful education–college campuses must prioritize freedom of speech and social discussion not only for the benefits of the student, but for society as a whole.
One cannot deny the role that colleges play in formulating an educated population that may affect the rate at which American culture develops. College campuses have always acted as a vital catalyst in speech reform over the decades, especially in the eighties and nineties in which colleges intended to restrict what would now be deemed “hate speech” toward marginalized groups–although, this trend in social politics drastically altered the education of America’s youth to include more diverse viewpoints of history, philosophy, and literature in a student’s curriculum. When one connects the more prominent racism and inequality issues taking place only several decades ago, an improvement on American education makes more sense–most campuses still encouraged civil dialogue between multiple sides of an argument and allowed students to express their views respectfully, regardless of disagreement (Haidt, Lukianoff). Nowadays, the trend of speech restriction tends to lean a lot more on the emotional side with the purpose of protecting an individual’s security, rather than the protection of a marginalized group. Many students find themselves guilty of “a public charge that the speaker has done something objectively wrong” if they in any way provoke someone, and that “the speaker apologize or be punished by some authority for committing an offense” (Haidt, Lukianoff). Due to the standards of present speech restriction, organizations like the Asian American Student Association from Brandeis University, without any defense on their part, cannot display their “anti-racism” signs if enough students feel negatively affected by its message. Constitutional lawyer and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Greg Lukianoff, and social psychologist studying the American culture wars, Jonathan Haidt, propose several theories to explain the origins of these emotionally based verdicts, but none appear as frequently as political polarization. American culture began an incline into severe political polarization–the process by which supporters of a certain argument isolate themselves from other viewpoints, continuously disparaging the opposition and developing radical judgments–only several decades ago. Many experts on the subject claim that when colleges endorse the teaching and tolerance of only select perspectives among their students and faculty, they “[deny] ‘viewpoint diversity’ and [promote] an academic ‘monoculture’” (Behrent), synonymous to the effects of political polarization. Of course, this effort by colleges goes beyond eliminating different points of view–they attempt to “demonize” (Haidt, Lukianoff) the other side as well. This is a critical issue in preserving a functioning democracy. As mutual resentment grows amongst the polarized liberal and conservative leaning students on campus, a decrease in social change going beyond the political realm may take place by lack of compromise, initiated due to critical thinking no longer being prioritized in a college classroom. Universities such as Brandeis exemplify this concerning trend in censorship that, if not addressed, could lead to a permanent impairment of freedom of speech rights.
While Brandeis University does have its flaws when it comes to authorizing its students’ full constitutional speech rights, it is in no way alone or extreme in the matter compared to other universities. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit organization that advocates for the protection of a student’s constitutional rights on campus, reports every year on which colleges perform the worst when it comes to freedom of speech. FIRE ranks these colleges based on many different factors, but one of the most considerable is the rigidity of speech codes enacted on campus. Speech codes range from a loosely interpreted regulation meant to shield students from harsh threats or continued harassment, to a policy that goes beyond Supreme Court rulings on free speech, thus infringing on the rights afforded to American citizens. For instance, as of 2019, Alabama A&M University enforces five speech codes–the most out of the 466 colleges that FIRE ranks every year–while most other institutions only have one or two. One particular harassment code from Alabama A&M claims that any comments that include “negative stereotyping,” “[i]nsulting … comments or gestures,” and comments that are merely “related to an individual’s age, race, gender, color, religion, national origin, disability, or sexual orientation” are subject to punishment (FIRE). Implementing regulations that encompass all forms of minor insult based on the subjective reasoning of either a student or faculty member could not be further from the ethics of the Constitution, and allows for students who have done nothing wrong to be taken advantage of. According to a recent study, many students don’t even know that the colleges that wish to “protect” them from opposing viewpoints infringe on their rights as Americans. This study configured that while “most students (89 percent) say that they believe in the importance of free speech, a strong majority (64 percent) favor, contrary to First Amendment jurisprudence, prohibiting “hate speech” (Behrent) with federal policy.Unique to more modern culture, federal or authoritative intervention has become an accepted form of political solution; however, in the context of the Alabama A&M University speech codes, the unspecific definition of a “hate speech” charge could very well originate from a misunderstanding or irrational offense and still garner an unfair punishment. If such speech codes were lawfully required by all college campuses, efforts toward the preservation of freedom of speech will continue to decrease. Two past cases of accused racial harassment–one as early as 1973 in which a University of Pennsylvania student called an African American woman making noise outside his dorm window a “water buffalo,” and another in 2008 due to a student possessing a book titled Notre Dame vs. The Klan–stand out today as defining actions toward the banning of hate speech. The term “water buffalo” was found to have no relation to a racial slur in the press, unfortunately after the Pennsylvania student received punishment. The so-called controversial novel the Indiana student owned “honored student opposition to the Ku Klux Klan when it marched on Notre Dame in 1924” (Haidt, Lukianoff), an investigation that proved unproductive considering the student received punishment regardless. The condoning of a system based on emotional reasoning is not only dangerous to a college student’s constitutional speech rights, but also to their wellbeing on campus–they are constantly “under threat” of speech codes that could affect their relationships with faculty and fellow classmates. Unfortunately, the expansion of these systems could kill the American political culture surrounded by diversity and opposition of viewpoints.
Under the Constitution, American government perists, as do its voters. Early history documents the Bill of Rights as a form of protection against tyrannical limitations rather than the source of harm that college campuses consider it to be. An infringement on the “protections” that the First Amendment affords students could largely affect the political culture they develop in the future, ensuring a climate surrounded in partisan polarization as a result of subjective speech codes and the silencing of societal discourse. Lukianoff and Haidt claimed that the most effective way to encourage discussion among college students wasn’t to “teach the students what to think,” but “teach them how to think,” and only then can the success of an education be considered.