In May of 2017, student at Evergreen State College demanded the firing of a professor who decided not to participate in a white "Day of Absence" in which white students and faculty were requested to remain off campus, even though he offered an open statement as to why he would not attend, citing that it would not be productive disagreement. When conservative commentator Ben Shapiro came to speak at UC Berkeley, nine people were arrested in protests related to his event. These two examples represent a larger trend of increasing tensions over campus expression. The First Amendment protects freedom of speech, but how far does that protection extend within the ivy covered walls of your college campus?
From a legal standpoint, the conversation around the First Amendment on college campuses has to be divided between public and private universities. At public universities, it is well established that students have all speech rights protected under Amendment I and the law that has followed from it. This is because public universities, in the eyes of the law, are considered to be government entities, meaning that it is unconstitutional to restrict free speech on public campuses.
Free expression at private universities, however, is another matter. Private schools are not required to guarantee First Amendment protections to their students. While this may appear problematic for free expression (and with good reason), most private universities consider themselves to be ardent proponents of free speech, going out of their way to ensure student speech rights through their student handbooks. This, however, is not guaranteed, and it is within a private university's legal limits to restrict student speech, so long as they make their policies public.
A legal discussion of campus speech rights only begins to cover the issue of expression on college campuses. Free expression has been framed as a force opposed to inclusion, leading to tensions. A Gallup poll found that 53 percent of students hold diversity to be more important than free speech. Campus culture has become dominated by the idea of microaggressions and safe spaces (for more on this topic, we highly recommend "The Coddling of the American Mind"). Colleges have become more concerned with maintaining sensitivity than with protecting free expression, with students being the driving force behind this shift.
At the FRFF, we believe that this sets students up for failure. Portraying inclusion and free expression as opposites only serves to damage students by preventing them from being exposed to opinions with which they disagree. Moreover, without free expression, it becomes impossible to confront perspectives that we find unfair or offensive, leaving this viewpoints to fester and cause animosity through a lack of understanding. Rather than posing the question of whether diversity is more important than free speech, we think that it is impossible to promote and protect diversity without it.