Policy, Social Justice

When fellow college students stopped respecting my freedom of speech, the college did nothing to stop them

Here's why I think college campuses can do both.

Around the U.S. colleges and universities are grappling with the issue of freedom of speech and what can/cannot be discussed on campus.

This is particularly acute at my institution and affects my experience as a student. I am involved with a somewhat controversial fellowship on my campus that is aimed at promoting liberal ideals of freedom of expression and learning from ideas that differ from your own. I applied for the fellowship in the fall thinking that I would be able to learn and grow. Yet I have found myself confronting tensions between freedom of speech and being respectful of other people.

Growing up in Portland, Oregon I was surrounded by left-leaning politics and perspectives.

When I arrived at college, I wanted to broaden my perspective and engage with ideas that differed from my own. I joined a fellowship that promised to engage me with ideas about freedom of speech, highlighted varying perspectives, and required me to think critically about my ideas and perspectives. And while I got certainly got all of that, I also had to defend myself to fellow students about why I was part of this fellowship and why I even believed I should be asking these kinds of questions.

My fellowship is contentious because it’s less liberal than the student population of my college, receives funding from some very conservative donors, and challenges students by bringing in speakers that don’t always agree with their worldview. While I think multiple perspectives are healthy, many around me don’t.

Students protested speakers and vandalized our fellowship offices claiming that the ideas that we talked about and presented were offensive and thereby harmful. When this started happening, I felt confused. I believe both in the ability for everyone tell their story and speak their truth but also wanted to respect my peers’ identities.

I continued on in my fellowship and the protests continued against it.

I learned to stop telling people about my involvement with the fellowship and to just listen to my peers who were angry and hurt. Many of my peers wanted to shut down the fellowship and talked about various ways to censor speakers or people from the fellowship.

I felt hurt but after reading about other institutions dealing with similar problems of free speech on campus made me feel like alone. I grew closer to my friends within the fellowship and we created a support group for each other. My belief that everyone should be able to speak freely remained unchanged, but I began to think that everyone might be approaching the problem the wrong way.

Instead of trying to force uncomfortable and unfamiliar topics onto students through controversial speakers, maybe our fellowship could have more balanced roundtable discussions. And instead of trying to shut the fellowship down and censor us, maybe students could lean into discomfort a little more.

But actually implementing that seemed almost impossible.

After countless conversations with students, faculty, and administrators, I found that I couldn’t force people to be more open-minded or teach them how to engage with differing opinions in one day. Rather, I had to explain the benefits of speaking respectfully and the merits in understanding and responding to different perspectives. And ultimately that learning to engage with new ideas is a practice of tolerance and inclusion

Rather than censoring others who don’t agree with us,  we can teach each other to understand.

It is not easy work. Some days I am too tired to engage and so I don’t. But I try to respond when I can. Free speech and respectful discourse are not mutually exclusive. You can have free, respectful speech. What we cannot have is censorship of ideas and conversations on college campuses.

While I wholeheartedly agree that speech that is violent or targeted at identifiers shouldn’t be permitted– it is hurtful and unproductive. But shutting people down for their ideas is the first step towards authoritarianism. Whoever decides what ideas can and cannot be expressed holds immense power whether that be a majority of students, a group of professors, or an administrator. And it doesn’t leave space for innovative new ideas. We will never grow and learn if we all think in one way. And we must confront new ideas and perspectives that aren’t our own

Sharing ideas is at the foundation of education and learning. Being exposed to uncomfortable, new ideas will either change our beliefs or help us believe our current beliefs more firmly. Free speech and being respectful are not mutually exclusive.

And if we can engage in respectful dialogue, we will grow and learn for the better.