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Saturday, April 20, 2024

Debate over free speech versus hate speech on college campuses raises censorship concerns

Self-censorship and fear of social retribution may be hindering conversations in the classroom


By REBEKA ZELJKO — features@theaggie.org


On Oct. 25, 2022, Turning Point USA, a student-led conservative group, organized an event hosting speaker Stephen Davis on the UC Davis campus. However, the event was canceled before it started after protests and counter-protests outside turned violent

Protestors “fought among themselves, used pepper spray, knocked over barricades […] and beat on the glass of the UC Davis Conference Center,” according to a statement released by UC Davis.

The university’s statement also emphasized its commitment to upholding free speech on campus, saying, “We affirm the right of our students — in this instance, Turning Point USA at UC Davis — to invite speakers to our campus, just as we affirm the right of others to protest speakers whose views they find upsetting or offensive.”

A 2022 study from the Knight Foundation published findings regarding college students’ views on free speech on campus. “A growing majority believe their school’s climate stifles free expression,” according to the study. In 2021, 65% of students “strongly [or] somewhat agree that the climate at their school or on their campus prevents some people from saying things they believe because others might find it offensive.”

Joel Landis, Ph.D., a lecturer for the UC Davis Political Science Department, has been paying close attention to this issue. 

“It does not feel like these are isolated incidents,” Landis said. “It does feel as if, particularly during the Trump administration, passions ran high, and things got worse. At the same time, violence against conversations we don’t like is something we have always seen. Toleration for the ideas we hate is an unnatural virtue that must be developed in every generation.”

Many students feel the virtue of toleration is hard to come by. Megan Acarregui, a fourth-year civil engineering major and chair of the UC Davis College Republicans, noted her experience at UC Davis with ideological intolerance. 

“I was afraid I wouldn’t have acceptance from my peers because of my political beliefs,” Acarregui said. “I lost friends over it even though I didn’t really do anything. I mean, if someone asks my opinion I’m not going to lie about it, but it feels like they didn’t even try to understand my point of view.”

The growing concern is that this attitude of intolerance for dissenting views is trickling into the classroom. Jonathan Dahlsten, a third-year graduate student in political science, said that he believes intolerance negatively impacts the quality of education on college campuses. 

“There is an amount of freedom of speech that is required to have these discussions imperative for a robust, liberal education,” Dahlsten said. “If we can’t have these discussions here, we cannot have them anywhere. That doesn’t mean putting up with direct hate speech, but we should have discussions about hate speech and consider the arguments on both sides.”

Some students call for the regulation of “hate speech,” defined by the American Library Association as “any form of expression through which speakers intend to vilify, humiliate, or incite hatred against a group or a class of persons on the basis of race, religion, skin color sexual identity, gender identity, ethnicity, disability, or national origin.” 

Maximilian Isensee, a fourth-year political science major, said that the presence of hate speech and the negatives that come with it outweigh the positives of having diverse views in the classroom. 

“Schools are a place for learning, and every student should be given the same level of safety and comfortability in that environment,” Isensee said. “But hate speech deters the learning process, and does a disservice to the students affected by it, so universities should make a point to prevent and punish those who participate in any speech that harms fellow students.”

On the other hand, some students think that labeling dissenting views as hate speech can diminish productive conversation and reduce the quality of education. 

“You are here to learn how to think and speak effectively and how to think critically,” Acarregui said. “If people say you can’t even talk about it because you will spread a hateful message, you are silencing opinions and history that could be repeated.”

Acarregui said she feels that the polarized nature of our conversations is damaging and fosters more extremism. 

“If you’re not allowed to talk about these things, it can become reactionary,” Acarregui said. “People should learn why we don’t tolerate certain things, not just that we shouldn’t.”

The subjectivity of the term hate speech and its varying definitions are a point of concern for some students.

“Just because someone doesn’t agree with the majority opinion on campus doesn’t mean they are spreading hate speech,” Dahlsten said. “Deeming something as hate speech states that that’s the end of the conversation. It’s a condemnation, and it can be well-warranted, but you need to be very careful about what you deem as hate speech.”

Landis argues that the utility of hate speech laws necessarily varies from one context to the other. 

“I would not apply the same rules for the classroom that I would the quad or the street corner,” Landis said. “One of the ideas behind hate speech codes is to foster an environment in which everyone can feel equal in the community. Minorities and majorities can be equal participants in discovering the truth. I don’t think the classroom is the appropriate place to say we cannot discuss the idea because it’s controversial. Every idea is subject to inquiry.”

However, these stigmatized conversations that many think ought to take place in a university have been stunted in recent years, according to a Campus Expression Survey from Heterodox Academy. Student hesitancy to express political perspectives for fear of retribution has been increasing. 

According to the survey, “60% of college students expressed reluctance to discuss at least one controversial topic,” the category with the highest reluctance being politics. Additionally, “Republican and Independent students were more reluctant to discuss controversial topics compared with Democrat students.”

This self-censorship is undercutting the educational process and hindering productive conversation in appropriate settings, according to Landis. But not all students believe forms of censorship are okay.

“In my opinion, hate speech should be shunned by the general public,” Isensee said. “But it is still within a person’s right to use those words if they so choose. We cannot as a society completely ban and silence people just because we disagree with them and what they are saying.”

The social consequences of being part of an ideological minority have affected the behavior of students, both on and off campus. Acarregui said her personal experiences caused her to feel socially isolated. 

“I lived in a sorority house full of girls who thought completely the opposite of me politically, which I was used to,” Acarregui said. “But it was really frustrating when they didn’t reciprocate the respect I gave them.”

Acarregui said that she felt like she was experiencing constant social retribution for her beliefs, which ultimately led to her leaving the sorority. 

Landis said that self-censorship and censorship should be differentiated and that self-censorship is the “problem” we are seeing more and more in social and academic institutions. 

“I would say that it has become increasingly apparent that students are self-censoring in the classroom and the ‘spiral of silence’ has gotten worse,” Landis said.

Landis suggests that the quality of classroom conversation is reduced because of this hesitancy to be a part of the dissent.

“The perceived majority becomes more and more entrenched and becomes more popular, and it’s particularly fatal for the classroom,” Landis said. “When the only students speaking are the ones speaking the orthodox opinions of the day, you destroy the classroom.”


Written by: Rebeka Zeljko — features@theaggie.org