Speaking freely on college campuses

Freedom of speech is a hallmark of American democracy. The authors of the Bill of Rights deemed it so essential to self-rule that it is the second right mentioned, after freedom of religion.

A negative right, the First Amendment proclaims “Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech.” Ambiguously written, it has not been interpreted as such by the Supreme Court. With a few exceptions, such as violent threats, libel, harassment, and “yelling fire in a crowded theater,” public speech in America is universally free and protected. Even hate speech.

Devotion to open-minded dialogue on college campuses has been embraced, by and large, by students and faculty for generations. Sigal Ben-Porath, a professor in the Literacy, Culture, and International Education Division at the Graduate School of Education, says colleges and universities hold a unique place in the conversation about speech, “where they are seen as both the mirror of American democracy and the window into its future.”

Students with diverging ideological leanings frequently differ on how free freedom of speech actually is. Certain groups believe the right is almost absolute, and purposely push boundaries to test its limits. Other organizations seek to limit debate on topics such as race, sexuality, war, and international politics, with the intention of preventing the expression of views they believe lie outside the bounds of reasonable discussion.

In her new book “Free Speech on Campus,” Ben-Porath, who is also an associated faculty member in the Departments of Political Science and Philosophy in the School of Arts & Sciences and chair of Penn’s Committee on Open Expression, examines the current state of the arguments about free speech on university campuses, using real-world examples to explore the contexts in which conflicts and tensions erupt.

Ben-Porath says her interest in writing the book grew out of her work chairing the Committee on Open Expression, which drew her attention to the complications regarding free speech, especially in the current environment.

“There is a lot of tension around this right now, and I think campuses should be ready, they should be prepared,” she says. “The way to be prepared is to talk about it more, not less.”

Free speech has been high on students’ minds in previous eras. During the Vietnam War, they protested government policies boisterously, vociferously, and occasionally with violence. The Civil Rights Movement had a significant presence on college campuses and on freedom of speech—especially students’ right to object to the war or express unpopular views.

The past few years have shown students to express a more limited commitment to free speech than they once held.

Ben-Porath discusses in the book a survey that shows half of American undergrads think some free speech restrictions are justified, such as hate speech, and colleges should be allowed to establish policies that restrict language and behavior that are intentionally offensive to certain groups. Another survey found that around 71 percent of students nationwide support institutions placing restrictions on offensive costumes, and racist and sexist speech, an increase from 60 percent in the early 1990s.

Social, educational, and political commentators, especially those on the right, claim that these thoughts and ideas supporting speech restrictions are a mark of political correctness, an abdication of democracy, and evidence of indoctrinating rather than educating American youth. But Ben-Porath sees it differently.

From reading the data and through her engagement with students on the Committee on Open Expression, she says students are saying they believe in free speech, but they also think colleges can and should rethink their positions of protecting hate speech, even though it is legally permissible.

“In my view, what students are telling us, which I think is a very important message, is that we should look for ways not to just formally have free speech—like having laws, or regulations, or statements on the books that say we don’t censor speech,” Ben-Porath says. “Students are saying, ‘OK, that’s all very fine and good, but in practice, some students cannot express their views because their voice is suppressed.’”

She says students have expressed that they don’t hear enough voices from groups that were not traditionally seen as a part of mainstream universities, such as women and racial, ethnic, linguistic, and sexual minorities.

“There are many groups the students are looking to actually bring into the fold of free speech, and in my view legitimately,” Ben-Porath says. “They are asking us to find positive ways of implementing and realizing free speech vis-à-vis members of these groups.”

Sigal Ben-Porath