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Free Speech on College Campuses, Essay Example

Pages: 5

Words: 1368

Essay

Introduction

In an era when increasing diversity creates strikingly contrasting viewpoints and ideologies, expression invariably becomes the focal point of debate. Overt actions, criminal and otherwise, made in response to perceived, unacceptable situations are more easily addressed by the courts; conduct, simply, more obviously crosses lines, and is more identifiable as a breach of civil rights. Language, however, is different and, in a society that places great import on free speech, questions of parameters become greatly problematic.   On one level, it is felt that language meant to malign others, for whatever reasons, is dangerous as an expression of hateful and/or violent intent, and should be legally suppressed.  Conversely, any boundaries placed on free speech are seen as inherent violations of personal liberty.   Nonetheless, there is no rational basis for a school placing codes or restrictions on how students express themselves, strictly in terms of communication.   The issue, while certainly linked to free speech liberties, is actually removed from it. Banning offensive speech is an ineffective means of changing thought, an injustice to all rights, and actually serves to inspire a stronger base to what initially generates it.

Perspectives and Stances

Not unexpectedly, free speech debates thrive on college campuses.  In such environments, ideological passions common to young people coexist in an atmosphere devoted to expression of thought and the development of character. People there are young, they are learning, and they are mixing with different people on a scale commonly not known to them before. It is only to be expected that, where evolving personalities from different backgrounds first encounter diversity of thought – and population – on a wide scale, conflict should ensue and affronts from expression be created. This conflict, of course, creates the controversy.

In a very real sense, there is a self-defeating, and seemingly negative, component to an opposition to all bans on free speech in universities or, in fact, anywhere. To defend the right of the malevolent, or even merely misguided, person to vent hurtful and possibly damaging sentiments is often seen as, somehow, an endorsement of those sentiments. At best, it is viewed as a dangerous and “excessive” assertion of freedom, and those in favor of bans on inappropriate speech often stress how freedom may easily be an abused commodity. That is to say, such people typically stress that freedom is never a license to do harm.  Society, after all, protects itself from extremes.  Rules that curtail opportunities for hate speech, it is thought, should be fostered in an increasingly diverse society, just as court rulings take steps to legislate against acts of hatred and/or bigotry (Delgado  353).

It is also argued that those who denounce restrictions on campus speech maintain agendas not in keeping with their professed ideologies.  More exactly, such people are eager to attack speech codes until an issue, usually involving a slur against a liberal cause or circumstance, arises. Proponents of a complete liberty of speech, it is felt, are less ambitious to protect freedom of expression when biased and hateful remarks against gays or women are voiced (Dupuy  349). To supporters of speech bans, opponents tend to like personal liberties only insofar as they reflect their own beliefs.

This viewpoint, however, while perhaps compelling, is essentially unrelated to the issue. That more liberal students, for example, may strongly object to the freedom of speech exercised by an anti-gay faction has nothing to do with the validity of the key premise. Put another way, the supporter of speech bans who ignores the restrictions when extreme conservative views are expressed is similarly irrelevant.   To view any issue at all as the determining factor sidesteps the core of the issue. If there is any element upon which both sides must agree, it is that, in an environment wherein differing ideologies may be expressed, somebody is going to offend someone else. Subject, and even degree of reaction, is irrelevant, and in either viewpoint. Consequently, a failure of liberal thinkers to apply equally their own precepts is a meaningless argument.

Similarly, in regard to the other issue, it is virtually nonsensical to assume that an endorsement of completely free speech translates to a shared viewpoint. Here, again, ideology is confused with agenda.  In point of fact, those concerned with university policy regarding free expression must remove human considerations from the arena itself, for these are intrinsically not pertinent to the subject, and invariably lead arguments away from the central point. It is never that a range of ideas may be seen as acceptable or otherwise; it is that all ideas must be, if the concept of free speech is to be honored. It is not, in plain terms, a concept that can survive editing.

Ironically, it is a concern for the well-being of a diverse society that typically generates speech bans inherently inimical to it. In modern times, awareness of cultural and ideological differences as being exploited to insult and injure have reached a level prompting literal bans, and on college campuses everywhere. The University of Connecticut has prohibited “inappropriate jokes”, “stereotyping”, and even, “inappropriately directed laughter” (Kors  337). Other schools employ different phrasing to list expressions absolutely forbidden on the campus. This form of reaction is so pervasive that it very much seems that universities seek to generate outrage, in the form of encouraging “victims” of inappropriate speech to report, and broadcast, the perceived offense (Kors  340). Schools, perhaps as fearful of potential litigation as they are more idealistically devoted to protecting vulnerable individuals or groups, appear to be actively scouting for inappropriate language, the better to substantiate their policies to curtail it.

Unfortunately, the prevalence of speech codes on college campuses appears to be born from something of an astonishing naivete. That is to say, that guards against certain manners of expression are in place utterly ignores, or chooses to dismiss, the inescapable fact that liberty is an inherently complex and difficult process, and not a fixed state of societal existence (Kors 342). This is crucial, in investigating the viability of speech bans, for it underscores how frequently “liberty” takes distasteful forms to many.   Freedom equates to an openness of all expression, some of which, again, must contradict others. When freedom of expression is agreeable to all, the process is corrupted, if not utterly eviscerated.

Most importantly, restrictions on campus speech are uniformly exercises in futility. Studies have revealed, in fact, that no change of viewpoint typically arises from suppression of a statement, no matter how “offensive”; it is counter-argument, while not consistently effective, that is more likely to generate a greater openness (Huscroft, Rishworth  182). The reality which must be accepted is that prohibitions of expression, at best, only silence. They do nothing to change or eliminate the feelings and points of view behind them; in fact, the greater likelihood is that the feelings, thus suppressed, gain in strength because opposition in the form of restriction is not a thoughtful response. It is only a barrier, and what it seeks to contain is then more probably fueled by so unthinking and blanket a reaction.

Conclusion

In an era wherein people are greatly sensitive to the differences of others, it is inevitable that those differences nonetheless spark unwarranted, inappropriate, and often hurtful responses.  Colleges address this by increasingly setting in place codes and speech bans, and eviscerate the elemental principles of liberty they seek to ensure for all in the process. Freedom is a complex and arduous, living component of a society, and it may not be abetted by even the best intentions to tailor it. Repression of speech, too, frequently promotes a strengthening of the ideologies behind it. The reality is clear: prohibiting offensive speech is not at all effective in changing thought, a violation  of all rights, and it actually serves to inspire a stronger base to what initially generates it.

Works Cited

Delgado, R.  “Hate Cannot Be Tolerated”   Goshgarian, G. J. (Ed.)  Exploring Language, 13th Edition.  Ontario: Pearson Education Canada, 2011.  Print.

Dupuy, T.  “Freedom of Deplorable Speech”  Goshgarian, G. J. (Ed.)  Exploring Language, 13th Edition.  Ontario: Pearson Education Canada, 2011.  Print.

Huscroft, G., & Rishworth, P.  Litigating Rights:  Perspectives from Domestic and International Law.  Portland, OR: Hart publishing, 2002.  Print.

Kors, A. C.  “The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses”  Goshgarian, G. J. (Ed.) Exploring Language, 13th Edition.  Ontario: Pearson Education Canada, 2011.  Print.

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