Is The Free Speech Crisis ‘Overblown’? The Ed Department Doesn’t Think So

Shannon Watkins Young Voices Advocate
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On April 2nd, the Department of Education’s supplemental priorities and definitions for certain discretionary grant programs—which includes provisions to protect free speech—went into effect. The Department’s efforts to ensure a free exchange of ideas on college campuses, however, have been met with some pushback.

Take, for example, formal comments that education leaders made about the Department’s “priorities and definitions.” One commenter remarked that “the Department is manufacturing a crisis around free speech in educational institutions;” others requested that the Department change the wording to protect “educated” free speech, or that it prohibit speech that contributes to a “hostile or bullying environment,” the definitions of which are unclear.

It appears that, despite overwhelming evidence of colleges and universities’ bias in favor of left-leaning ideologies, many claim that the issue of campus free speech is a “myth” or is blown out of proportion. On the contrary, however, even though colleges and universities frequently pride themselves on being bastions of free thought, it is clear that freedom of thought is often only granted to those who espouse ideas en vogue with the political left.

In response to the pushback on its free speech policies, the Education Department reaffirmed its commitment to the protection of campus free speech, stating that college students’ speech too often is restricted “due to speech codes.”

And while the Education Department seems to be aware of the current maladies college students face, President Trump appears to be less cognizant of that reality. In a March 22 interview with Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA, a national conservative student organization, Trump described the issue of campus free speech as “highly overblown.”

Trump explained that the “vast majority” of people on campus “want free speech,” claiming that radical groups receive a disproportionate amount of attention. And while it is true that a recent Gallup Poll revealed that 56 percent of college students say protecting free speech is “extremely important to democracy,” nearly half also supported speech codes and 73 percent were in favor of restricting “hate speech.”

However, even if it were true that the majority of students support free speech, Trump overlooks the fact that countless abuses of free speech stem not from students at all, but rather from administrators and faculty members who seek to rid the academy of politically incorrect viewpoints.

One instance of administrative abuse of free speech occurred at Indiana University of Pennsylvania on February 28. During a classroom discussion in a religious studies course on Christianity, the student, Lake Ingle, objected to the notion that there are more than two genders.

Ingle asserted that most biologists hold that there are only two genders: male and female. But in response, the professor demanded that the student sign a written statement of apology and stand before the classroom to listen to how he offended his classmates. The professor later filed a complaint with the university in order to ban Ingle from the class.

In a March 14 interview on the Tucker Carlson show, Ingle said that the professor

“didn’t like the fact that I disagreed with the subject being pushed in class: [there] being more than two genders, male privilege, systemic sexism and mansplaining.”

Biology is not the only controversial topic on today’s college campuses. As recent events at the University of Connecticut (UConn) indicate, colleges and universities are quick to condemn conservative or libertarian guest speakers as hateful or harmful by default.

For example, when prominent conservative commentator, Ben Shapiro, came to UConn in January, the chief diversity officer issued an email prior to his arrival. Students were warned by university’s associate vice president and chief diversity officer that Shapiro’s mere presence on campus might be distressing, and were advised to seek mental health services “if needed.”

For safety concerns, Shapiro’s talk was heavily monitored by security and the event was closed to the public. Additionally, the College Republicans who organized the event had to go through a long and laborious review process in order to bring Shapiro to campus.

Yet, less than a month later, UConn invited Linda Sarsour, a public supporter of Sharia law, to campus to celebrate Women’s History Month. Nonetheless, her participation as a leader of the Women’s March and her vocal condemnations of conservative-leaning policies have made her a darling of the left. Even the Obama White House named Sarsour a “Champion of Change” in 2011.

In advance of Sarsour’s speech, UConn released the following statement: “We believe public universities should be places where differing views can be expressed respectfully and where our students and other guests can consider and challenge a variety of opinions.”

It seems that a common thread that connects all of these incidents together is administrators’ desire to “protect” students from potentially uncomfortable or offensive ideas—which points to an underlying misunderstanding about the nature of free speech.

But if colleges and universities were really in favor of a respectful exchange of differing views, there wouldn’t be double standards between conservative or liberal-leaning viewpoints: both would be equally welcomed to be discussed on campus.

If all of these instances of administrators’ silencing of unfashionable ideas indicate anything, it’s that students — and faculty members — should be careful to think, or at least voice, the “correct” thoughts, lest they be exiled from academia’s sacred halls.

Shannon Watkins is a Young Voices Advocate and writes on higher education policy in Raleigh, North Carolina.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.