Free speech is vital to growth

Spencer Batute, Guest Columnist

In an era of civil tension, fake news, politically charged media, uncertainty over the integrity of the current presidential administration, the necessity of critical thinking and logical debate is higher than ever. Yet, collegiate education has come up short. What is causing the national college system to so violently lurch? Political correctness.

In recent years, colleges across America have taken strides in creating more politically correct environments with the intent of making their learning atmospheres more accommodating to people of all cultures, races, religions, sexualities and genders. Such intent is not a bad thing at all. In fact, it should be expected of all institutions of higher education. However, in the sweeping wave toward mass political correctness, this intent has been taken so much to the extreme that universities are no longer forums of constructive debate and intellectual growth, and are instead isolated bubbles of dogmatism and groupthink.

Many colleges are converting their campuses into “safe spaces” in which students’ ideologies and identities are protected from nearly anything in conflict with them. Again, with the intent alone to make schools more welcoming and receptive to students of all backgrounds, this is hardly a bad thing. But, the level of catering toward students’ feelings has become so doctrinaire that free speech has been almost entirely abandoned. Books and historical texts are coming with trigger warnings — and sometimes banned outright. Buildings and statues with even the slightest ties to historical oppression are being torn down or renamed, and forms of speech perceived to be offensive to others are being delegated to “free speech zones” on campuses. A security guard at Modesto Junior College, as described in a 2016 Newsweek article by Nina Burleigh, stopped a graduate from handing out a copy of the U.S. Constitution because he wasn’t inside a 25-square-foot free speech zone 30 yards from the nearest walkway.

Such incidents are hardly isolated, too. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s 2019 report surveying the state of free speech across 466 U.S. colleges, 28.5 percent of the colleges analyzed have speech codes that “seriously infringe upon the free speech rights of students.” Furthermore, as posted on the FIRE’s Disinvitation Database, there have been 379 disinvitations of speakers across national college campuses due to such restrictions since 2000. In recent events, many guest speakers have had to be prematurely disinvited or removed from campuses as a result of angry, even violent protesting. In February 2017, violent protests stopped right-wing activist Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking at U.C. Berkeley; six people were injured, and caused more than $100,000 in damages to the campus.

When sensitivity is accommodated at such a high degree, public discourse and intellectual stimulation — two essential facets of higher education — are displaced by censorship and narrow-mindedness. Instead of engaging in opposing viewpoints and learning how to properly think about important issues, students are being shielded from them, believing that any stance conflicting with their own is an intentional attack on their identity.

Even if the argument that colleges should exist to serve as ideological safe havens for students were true, the fact of the matter is that the world is not a safe haven. It is a battleground of viewpoints, and in this complicated social climate we live in, the skill required to differentiate between right and wrong is more important than ever.

For as long as they have existed, places of higher learning have functioned to prepare people in some way for the real world; what more of a contradiction is there that such places are now foregoing the education of critical thinking skills, teaching students that it is okay to hold fast to dogmatic ideals and drown out voices of dissent? For as long as colleges continue to maintain politically correct agendas and perpetuate the idea of campus safe spaces, the future of free and effective thinking will remain uncertain.