Conflict on campus: political correctness vs. free speech

Since the advent of American universities, these institutions have embodied the concept “marketplace of ideas.” In other words, they’ve served as places where anyone is able to freely express his or her ideas, but only the brightest and strongest survive; the ignorant and intolerant ideas are ultimately shunned.

Students are exposed to a wide variety of expressions that they both agree and disagree with, and by the end of their studies, exposure to both sides will hopefully have led students to solidify their beliefs before they are put to the test in the “real world.”

Recently, however, universities in the U.S. have begun censoring class material and commencement speeches in an effort to shelter their students from offensive content. Today, where do we draw the line when it comes to what we can, can’t, and shouldn’t say on college campuses?

This friction between political correctness and freedom of speech on college campuses has been a popular topic of discussion for quite a while now, but at the beginning of this school year, this friction finally resulted in fire.

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Yale University’s old campus, the current site of many student protests against what minority students feel is a lack of support from administration. Creative Commons license.

In October, after several minority students at Yale spoke out about the lack of the administration’s support for marginalized students facing discrimination on campus,  the university’s Intercultural Affairs Committee requested that students avoid wearing Halloween costumes that were “culturally unaware and insensitive.”

Among the list of possible offensive costumes: “headdresses, turbans, wearing ‘war paint’,” and “modifying skin tone.” While it is mostly agreed upon that it is wrong to personally attack someone’s race or culture, Professor Nicholas Christakis and his wife Erika, masters of an undergraduate college at Yale, raised a larger point in a second email to the student body: “Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”

Christakis’ email raises other questions as well. When did college students begin allowing their power of self-censorship to be transferred to higher authority? When did college students begin preferring protection from offensive forms of expression to standing up for themselves? “If you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other,” Christakis wrote.

Following the second email, Professor Christakis was faced with the wrath of a group of African American students at his wife’s argument. After many explicit words were thrown at the professor, he asked for an “intellectual discussion” with his students. In response, one student shrieked, “It is not about creating an intellectual space! [at Yale] It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here.” In that case, what really is the main role of a university?

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“The real world isn’t gonna shelter you, so there’s no point in being coddled in college,” said junior Alex Worley. “In any case, we should be working on making the younger students more ‘politically correct’ and less hurtful.”

Minority students at Yale are not the only ones complaining about the lack of support they receive on campus. In October, students at the University of Missouri held protests and hunger strikes as a result of “poor handling of recent race incidents” by Mizzou’s administration, leading the university’s president, Tim Wolfe, to resign.

In the midst of one protest, a student photographer was prohibited from taking photos and later on, police urged students to report any “hateful and/or hurtful speech.”  These actions led other members on campus to question whether the minority movement had gone too far in terms of limiting freedom of the press and speech.

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A quote from President Barack Obama.

“Drawing the line at a university stalls education because you have to reroute what you have to say when students there should be able to differentiate between right and wrong in order to form their own opinions,” said senior Mark Schoen.

President Obama recently shared his point of view on “students at college” being “coddled and protected from different point of view” as well.

Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them, but you shouldn’t silence them by saying you can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.”


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