Under the banner of the Alternative Right – or “alt-right” – extremist speakers are touring colleges and universities across the country to recruit students to their brand of bigotry, often igniting protests and making national headlines. Their appearances have inspired a fierce debate over free speech and the direction of the country.
Several recent incidents in which college students spewed racist or misogynistic language on campus have renewed debate about how much freedom of speech the U.S. Constitution actually permits. Among the most notorious examples: the singing of a racist chant this year by several University of Oklahoma fraternity members. College presidents at Oklahoma and other campuses have swiftly disciplined students for speech deemed inappropriate, but civil liberties advocates say college officials are violating students' First Amendment rights to free speech. Meanwhile, critics say a small but growing movement to give students “trigger warnings” about curriculum material that might traumatize them indicates that colleges are becoming overly protective. American universities also have come under fire for accepting money from China and other autocratic governments to create overseas branches and international institutes on their home campuses. Defenders of such programs say they are vital for global understanding, but critics say they may compromise academic freedom.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order requiring colleges and universities that receive federal funds to do what they’re already required by law to do: extend free-speech protections to men and women on campus.
The First Amendment to the Constitution protects speech no matter how offensive its content. Restrictions on speech by public colleges and universities amount to government censorship, in violation of the Constitution. Such restrictions deprive students of their right to invite speech they wish to hear, debate speech with which they disagree, and protest speech they find bigoted or offensive. An open society depends on liberal education, and the whole enterprise of liberal education is founded on the principle of free speech.
SPLC President Richard Cohen testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary about the obligation of universities to uphold not only the First Amendment rights of controversial speakers but to speak out against speech that threatens our democratic values.
Freedom of expression, we are often told, is democracy’s lifeblood, the medium through which even the most contentious viewpoints can pass. Free speech, according to this view, is debate’s condition of possibility; it is not, in principle, meant to be the subject of debate itself. In times of crisis, however, foundational principles are called into question. The present seems just such a moment. Rather than provide the broader framework for disagreement, free speech itself has become a source of contention. Nowhere is this more true than on college and university campuses.