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Davis, California

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Please Don’t Censor This: Exposing the war on campus speech

headshot_niUndergraduates at fault for perpetuating a devious trend against intellectual freedom

Janet Napolitano’s recent editorial on the merits of preserving free speech at universities is becoming increasingly necessary in the current political age. She observes the recent trend of college students suppressing views that even marginally sound marginalizing.

Her most striking point: “If it hurts, if it’s controversial, if it articulates an extreme point of view, then speech has become the new bête noire of the academy. Speakers are disinvited, faculty are vilified, and administrators like me are constantly asked to intervene.”

It’s an interesting turn of events when Janet Napolitano offers up a searing indictment of the repressive tendencies that litter contemporary college culture. Take note, because Napolitano is not your typical demagogue whining about the rise of political correctness.

She was a rock-solid pillar of the Obama administration and the groundbreaking Arizona governor who vetoed 180 bills against a Republican-dominated state legislature. Her track record suggests she might be in favor of the “safe space” –– but her editorial says otherwise.

Napolitano’s words have been echoed in all corners of academia and government. We all know the firestorm surrounding the University of Chicago’s dean of students and his freshmen welcome letter. His words reflect the sentiments burgeoning among journalists and leaders in defense of free discussion.

Even Barack Obama recently lambasted the rising tide of censored speech, saying that students shouldn’t “have to be coddled or protected from different points of view.” Instead of censoring antithetical opinions, he said, students should be making arguments that affirm the theory-clashing ideal of universities.

I’ve encountered some adherents and quite a few more dissidents to this sage advice. Remember the evangelical preachers who roamed the quad last spring? Their preaching was often extreme to the common ear, which many felt warranted harsh sanctioning. I saw a couple of  Davis students confront the evangelists intellectually and civilly –– the proper choice. They went “high” instead of “low.” But most didn’t get Michelle’s memo.

Many students abusively belittled and harangued the preachers. Others demanded their forced removal from campus. One student wrote that not only are “open” campuses “a fundamentally flawed idea,” but they also create an atmosphere that is unsafe to students.

It’s this idea of ‘safety’ that is so harmful to the young minds universities are supposed to cultivate. Where is the excitement surrounding controversy? What happened to intellectually-curious students meeting the other side head-to-head? It’s certainly absent where I look.

Calls to silence controversial speech also undermine the community standards UC Davis strives to uphold.

“We must understand and value both our individual differences and our common ground,” reads the official UC Davis Principles of Community. “We further recognize the right of every individual to think, speak, express and debate any idea…”

Previous generations relished opportunities for such open and honest dialogue in their classrooms. Today, universities are hotbeds of grassroots trigger warnings, safe spaces and ironic protests against “hostile” speech.

To be fair, the barebones idea of trigger warnings and safe spaces are not without merit. In practice, however, these phrases can morph from benign warning systems (originally for rape victims) to tools used for burying divergent opinions. They began as shields against trauma –– now they’re used to demonize and subvert intellectual freedom.

This is the crux of Napolitano’s message. There’s a right way to handle diverse opinions, and it certainly doesn’t include censorship. Let’s all agree on that.


Written by: Nick Irvin — ntirvin@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.


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