In American life, it seems that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction: intellectualism and rising anti-intellectualism, eight years of Barack Obama and the election of Donald Trump, large advances in civil rights and the retraction of those rights (e.g., Dobbs v. Jackson). But no neat system of binaries would stand without eventual collapse when faced with a topic like free speech. Society shifts with the demarcations of history and our current reality is the result of many interconnected political and sociocultural factors.
People coming from nearly all positions of the political spectrum can seem to become exercised over free speech issues. Within the past year, the following types of incidents have thus occurred: the heckling of conservative speakers, debates over trigger warnings, debates over course content (and the expanding canon), student discomfort with specific topics, self-censorship, cancel culture and what some decry as a lack of viewpoint diversity on campuses. Considering that any situation that involves free speech is highly specific, each incident has a unique context and is a unique combination of the phenomena listed above.
Free speech is a topic that has political, legal, social and cultural implications. In addition, pressures to censor at least some kinds of speech are present across the political spectrum. On the right, there is concern about teaching critical race theory, and on the left, there is concern about bringing conservative speakers to campus and calls to issue trigger warnings in the classroom.
At Stanford Law School, a federal appeals court judge was heckled by students after trying to speak. At Pennsylvania State University, President Neeli Bendapudi released a video explaining the obligation to host speakers that hold views that many find egregious. Within the last two years, speakers with conservative views have been disrupted at Yale Law School, the University of California Hastings College of Law and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
At Cornell, when conservative media pundit and author Ann Coulter ’84 came to speak on campus, students disrupted her in an organized effort to prevent her from speaking. (The incident at Cornell was similar to the one at Stanford, where a speaker with harmful views was invited to speak on campus and subsequently heckled by student protestors.) Last April, the Student Assembly attempted to pass Resolution 31, a bill that tried to mandate trigger warnings in the classroom. In response President Martha Pollack immediately issued a statement condemning the resolution. Cornell made national news and “Free Expression” was announced the theme of the 2023-24 school year.
During this polarized time it can feel impossible to know what to do or what to say. As a student in the humanities, I’ve watched professors debate out loud to themselves about whether or not they should issue a trigger warning. Professors also consider the sociocultural implications of the material they teach more so than in the past, particularly with student discomfort on the rise. The suggestion that trigger warnings be mandated so as to prevent discomfort is not the answer to this confusion. Mandating trigger warnings denies the complexity of the classroom and can infantilize and impose vulnerabilities where they do not lie.
What scares me the most are the ways that students avoid having thoughtful and respectful discussions with one another, particularly when that discourse is political. On campus, self-censorship is reported by students on the political right and left. “On a broader campus level, there is a good degree of self-censorship,” Avery Bower ’23, President of Cornell Republicans, told me last spring. He reflects a sentiment felt by many conservatives on college campuses where there is a liberal majority.
When I spoke to a progressive member of Cornell Political Union (a bipartisan political debate club) they told me: “I think certain groups on campus make it really difficult to voice what you want to voice without pushback. I think it is harder for Republicans to speak out because we have such a liberal campus. In spaces like CPU, it was really difficult for people really far on the left to kind of speak about their political ideology to the truest sense because you have a lot of conservatives who think that free speech is so threatened.”
Javed Jokhai ’24, president of Cornell Democrats, conveyed the detrimental effects of this culture stating, “we touch upon topics where we don’t know how to communicate with each other in a way that feels authentic, sensitive, and honest.” These sentiments illuminate a culture where students are unable to express their opinions in such a way that maintains respect for themselves and others.
The issue of free speech inspires us to refocus on the goal of education. When I spoke to Provost Michael Kotlikoff, he expressed that “the whole point of an education is to be disruptive.” An education is supposed to challenge previously held views, promote intellectual exchange and teach one how to strengthen and defend views against criticism. To protect, honor and cherish an education that disrupts – we must protect free speech and academic freedom on campus this school year and face the discomfort that studenthood entails.
Rebecca Sparacio is a senior in The College of Arts & Sciences. Her fortnightly column The Space Between is a discussion on student life, politics and community. She can be reached at [email protected].
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