There is a trending notion on college campuses that certain words and ideas are dangerous to intellectual and moral progress and should be squelched without question. This has led students to disrupt, disinvite and physically attack intellectuals, comedians and other speakers whose perspectives and insights could otherwise have been used for critical inquiry and the search for truth. Because of our own biases, we may miss important and legitimate points that might inform our own understanding, or aid in the understanding of others. There are profound reasons, only superficially understood by most people, why the Founding Fathers made free speech the First Amendment. Unfortunately, the University of Rhode Island Student Handbook plays into the hands of those who believe that we must be protected from ideas and words that offend us.
According to our Student Handbook (Pages 15 and 18) URI students can be labeled and punished as sexual harassers for “any unwelcome conduct” such as “sexual remarks, comments, jokes and innuendos, [and] communicating unwelcome stories about someone’s social or sexual life” (consider that one person’s offensive joke is another’s comedic masterpiece). This equates words with conduct. Students can also be reprimanded and potentially punished for simply expressing bias if it is “hurtful.” I am not talking about true harassment, to which no person should be subjected and which the school should take very seriously. However, no one is entitled to go through life without being offended. These are different things, but URI’s policies conflate them. These policies are unconstitutional and misleading.
Why would students express unpopular opinions or potentially offensive jokes if they face the possibility of being labeled and punished as a harasser or bigot by their university? I’m not advocating that we go around intentionally offending others, rather that we use our right to speech to learn from that which we vehemently disagree with, and embolden ourselves and others to stand up to prejudice and hatred in a sophisticated manner. Suppressing bias precludes the above noble and courageous goals.
It takes strong emotional grounding and clear minded thinking to grapple with that which initially repels us. Policies that “protect” students from offensive speech and comments are designed to limit our freedom of expression and thus our freedom to hear and learn from our adversaries and adversarial situations. While earlier generations often countered offensive speech by chanting “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” current policies infantilize us and treat us like helpless children, encouraging us to run to authority when we feel hurt and demanding that administration take care of our problems. Isn’t a university meant to prepare us for life’s inevitable undesirable confrontations? Preventing harassment is always necessary, but there are robust definitions and standards of harassment, such as The Davis Standard that don’t restrict speech like URI’s policies do.
The Pew Research Center recently found that 40 percent of Millennials condone censoring speech considered offensive. Another study found that 51 percent of students support shouting down speakers with whom they disagree. These statistics imply that half our generation does not firmly grasp the educational, political and social significance of our inalienable right. They don’t understand how absolutely vital free speech is for democracy, intellectualism, individuality and social justice. If speech doesn’t fit their preferred tone, suppression is their go-to way of circumventing that which they disagree with, disabling their intellects, and others’. Each individual may determine what they believe and how to react, but no one should have the power to decide what another can or can’t hear no matter how egregious an opinion or view is. The opposite of a comprehensive and effective education is when university administration intentionally or unintentionally promulgates the notion that certain ideas and even individual words are themselves violent and should be suppressed, providing a justification for punishing a “hurtful” voice.
The first Student Right in our handbook states, “Students have the right to freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of inquiry and peaceful assembly.” URI’s subsequent policies unreasonably intimidate us into its opposite. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, these policies amount to government censorship. Upon being liable for misleading advertising, URI is thus at potential risk of losing government funding, putting students in jeopardy of losing their education. I want to trust URI’s administration to provide for us what they promise: the opportunity to mature into our best selves by learning to use our intellects and exercise our freedom of expression… without intimidation. Fortunately, the Student Handbook is up for modification this year. It is incumbent on Kathy Collins Ph.D., vice president of student affairs, and Dan Graney Ph.D., dean of students, to revise our handbook to remedy the University’s missteps, and realign policies to respect the premise and mechanism upon which the University endeavor is predicated: free speech.