On November 30, comedian Nimesh Patel was kicked off stage at Columbia University, after students deemed his material to be too offensive for their taste. Mr. Patel paraphrases his joke in an op-ed for the New York Times as such:
“I open by saying I live in Hell’s Kitchen, a diverse area in New York populated by, among others, gay black men who are not shy about telling me they don’t approve of what I’m wearing. I try to learn things from everyone I encounter, and one day I realize oh, this is how you know being gay can’t be a choice — no one would choose to be gay if they’re already black. No one is doubling down on hardship. Then I say, no black dude wakes up and thinks that being a black man in America is too easy. No black dude says, ‘I’m going to put on a Madonna halter top and some Jordans and make an Indian dude real uncomfortable.’ That’s not a choice.”
After telling this joke, Columbia University students cut Patel’s mic, and asked him to leave the stage with thirty minutes remaining in his set. Whether or not you find Patel’s joke funny or insightful, it was unequivocally wrong for Columbia students to remove him from stage, and it represents an alarming trend in comedy on college campuses across the country.
What in Patel’s joke was “offensive”? Indeed, the very premise of the joke is addressing a common homophobic claim that being gay is a choice, and that it is a categorically wrong choice at that. Patel, himself a person of color, further comments on the hardships that accompany being black in America, a reality that some Americans deny exists today. In this joke, Patel takes on racial discrimination and homophobia, and gives a defense of the LGBTQ+ community in a manner that is lighthearted, non-confrontational, and perhaps even persuasive.
In doing so, Patel fulfills the real purpose of comedy. Comedy exists to push boundaries, to make traditionally uncomfortable topics accessible to large groups of people. Comedy is supposed to be method by which we can hold up a mirror to an often ugly society and find a way to exist happily within it.
The Columbia students who shut down Mr. Patel refuse to see that reality. It is not enough to take on issues of race and sexuality through humor. It is not enough to use humor to simplify a situation in order to persuade people to reconsider their prior opinions. I would venture to guess that the students who shut down Mr. Patel would fit in with the thirty-seven percent of students across the country who believe that shouting down a speaker with which they disagree is acceptable.
For these students, nothing but absolute, explicit condemnation of the conditions of race and sexuality in the United States would be acceptable. In their minds, we should not try to persuade racists and homophobes that they are wrong in their positions by any means necessary. Instead, we should condemn them, cast them out, and fuel the vitriol of their hateful positions.
What happened to Mr. Patel at Columbia is just one incident in an alarming trend of students denying the right to be heard to people with which they disagree, especially at elite universities. I have witnessed it first hand at my school, Harvard University. When Charles Murray came to campus, the event was scheduled with the intent of allowing students to interrogate Murray’s controversial positions. Instead, he was met with crowds of angry protestors, accusing him of being a white supremacist whose work was built on that of Nazi scientists. This demonstration delayed the event, cutting the time remaining for questions and meaningful discourse at the end of the presentation in half. Instead of arguing against Murray’s positions, they chose an easier course of action: silencing them.
The same happened at Harvard with a far less controversial speaker: Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. When DeVos came for a speaking engagement at Harvard, students interrupted her speech by holding large signs accusing her of “white supremacy” and raising their fists.
Universities exist to allow students to push their boundaries, and the best way to do that is through totally free speech. Comedy amplifies the power of speech by uniting people under a comfortable umbrella of the shared experience of humor, even though individual experiences vary so widely.
As a college student, watching my university and schools across the country continuously refuse to uphold speech rights on campus is troubling. By refusing to uphold the right to express unpopular opinions, universities are teaching students that it is acceptable to silence people with which they do not agree. Harvard’s mission is to, “Educate the future citizens and citizen-leaders of the world.” If our future leaders are being shown that it is acceptable to silence speech with which they disagree, I am deeply concerned for the future of speech rights in general.
People enter college at all different phases of life. Some people walk in on their first day, ready to tell you their thirty year plan. Others have no idea what they want to do, and come in ready to explore all of their options. Neither of these approaches to school are incorrect, and one is not better than the other. No matter what your perspective is though, college is a time to explore new perspectives, develop your beliefs, and begin to solidify your values.
That said, it can be easy to go into college thinking that you have it all figured out (I am Exhibit A). You may think that your beliefs are set in stone, planted by your upbringing and grown through your resolve. With this kind of a closed mindset, people are likely to seek out individuals and groups that reinforce their preexisting beliefs to provide a sense of security in those values. This kind of thinking, however, is unproductive.
When we engage only with people and groups with which we agree, we lose valuable opportunities for personal and professional growth. These situations create "echo chambers" where we, surrounded by beliefs that mirror our own, can gain a sense of false comfort and feel validated in our positions. These groups encourage us to dig our heels into the ground, state our case, and refuse to waver.
This is exactly what I did when I got to school. A proud GOP member, I immediately enlisted in all of the conservative groups I could find, shunning those that I felt did not agree with my values. As the year went on though, I found myself becoming more radical. I began to question what it was I truly believed in, to question my motives for putting myself in the spaces I had chosen to occupy. This questioning only began though when I was challenged for the first time by a fellow student in the dining hall, who introduced me to the concept of unaffiliated centrism and directed me to an organization that supported moderate, independent political candidates for state and federal offices. Though I still consider myself conservative leaning, I left the College Republicans shortly after that conversation. Today, I am part of a national movement of centrist voters aimed at encouraging nonpartisan cooperation in government. None of this would have been possible had that conversation never occurred.
To break out of your own echo chamber, it is crucial to adopt a growth mindset. Carol Dweck, who coined the term, writes that with a growth mindset "people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment." Adopting this attitude in college will allow you to deal with cognitive dissonance and ideological diversity in a way that is productive, rather than paralyzing.
You can begin to embrace this mindset by actively seeking out groups with which you disagree. Are you a staunch Republican? Try attending a meeting led by the College Democrats to better understand their viewpoints. Maybe you are vehemently pro-choice. Start a dialogue with pro-life students on campus, rather than condemning them.
At Harvard, I serve as the Treasurer of the Network of Enlightened Women, an organization for conservative women to come together on campus. Earlier this year, we hosted conservative commentators Mary Katharine Ham and Guy Benson for a meeting with our group. Several left-leaning women attended the event, and they posed some of the most insightful questions I had heard. After the panel discussion was over, we were able to sit and talk with one another, and several of them commented that their perceptions of our organization and of conservative women in general had been altered just by attending that meeting.
When you go out of your way to seek out constructive disagreement, you will be better prepared to deal with it in "real life." You may even find yourself beginning to change your mind. Hearing opposing viewpoints allows you to question your beliefs, change your mind, or build on your current values.
No matter how you approach constructive disagreement, you will be better off for it. What do you have to lose by hearing from those who are different from you?
America's strength is in its diversity. If we avoid that diversity rather than embracing it, we do a disservice to ourselves, as well as to society at large. Imagine the amount of relationships you might miss out on by limiting your connections to only those people with which you agree. Learning to see beyond ideological differences to recognize the value in another person is part of being a member of a democratic society. What better place to start than college?
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.
The First Amendment: you hear the term tossed around constantly. You hear it as a defense for a controversial tweet, as the basis of a Supreme Court decision, or around your college campus when controversial speakers are invited. What really is the First Amendment thought, from a legal standpoint, and what liberties does it guarantee? The answer is more complicated than it seems.
Let's start with the basics. The First Amendment full text reads, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." There are five specific rights guaranteed in Amendment I: freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of assembly, and freedom to petition.
Freedom of religion, though it has been debated and interpreted differently for centuries, is the most self-explanatory aspect of the First Amendment. Amendment I makes two guarantees regarding freedom of religion: that no laws will be passed to establish a national religion, and that no one will be prohibited from practicing their religion freely. Freedom of the press ensures that the government will not interfere with any individual or group's ability to publish what they see fit. Freedom of assembly guarantees people the right to assemble and take action as groups, while freedom to petition the government protects the right of the people to criticize the government without fear of punishment. While freedom of speech seems to be the most self-explanatory First Amendment right of all, it is one of the most nuanced and complex topics in American legal history. Each of these aspects of Amendment I are far more nuanced than I have portrayed them above, and each will be covered in a later blog post. This post, however, will focus on freedom of speech, and discuss its limitations in American society today.
What does freedom of speech mean?
Freedom of speech is a term that is often used lightly without a solid definition. At its most broad definition, freedom of speech as enumerated in the First Amendment prohibits the government from infringing on or banning speech because it disagrees with the content being expressed.
Over the past several centuries though, the term "free speech" has become more complex.Freedom of speech has come to include the right not to speak (West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette), the right to advertise (Virginia Board of Pharmacy v. Virginia Consumer Council), and the right to contribute to political campaigns (Bucky v. Valeo). The term speech itself has been complicated by decisions like that in Texas v. Johnson, which ruled that burning a flag constitutes a form of "symbolic speech" that is protected by Amendment I, and that of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which ruled that the spending of money is constitutionally protected speech that cannot be restricted by the government.
Freedom of speech, thought it has become more complex over the centuries since it was enumerated in the United States Constitution, still generally refers to the natural right of an individual to speak freely without fear or threat of censorship by the government or any government institution.
What kind of speech is not protected by Amendment I?
The United States guarantees more freedom of speech than anywhere else in the world, but there are certain forms of speech that are not protected by Amendment I or other speech law. These include:
One of the most important things to remember about the First Amendment is that it lays out the rules that govern free speech in the public domain. There are a slew of other speech issues that come with speech when it is moved into the private sector.
How are the rules different for speech in the private sector?
It is important to keep in mind that the First Amendment protects freedom of speech from infringement by the government; Amendment I does not prohibit private entities from violating individual freedoms. As such, freedom of speech is not a legally held right in private workplaces or universities. Though there are laws to protect employees from discrimination, there is no constitutionally protected freedom of speech in the workplace. Public sector employees enjoy the right to free speech in the workplace, although employers may restrict free speech in order to ensure a functional workplace.
Universities follow a similar structure. Any censorship of protected speech at a public university constitutes government censorship, and it is thus forbidden. Private universities, however, reserve the right to craft any kind of speech restrictions they see fit. Throughout American history, private universities prided themselves on holding higher education to a standard of free expression even higher than that which is guaranteed in the Constitution. This culture has shifted over the course of the past decade though, as students continue to demand more restrictive speech codes in the name of protesting harassment and discrimination. A later article will consider why such speech codes are counterproductive.
Why should I care?
Freedom of speech is one of the attributes that makes the United States a strong nation. It allows democracy to flourish, constructive disagreement to occur, and the nation to progress. Knowing your rights is imperative to ensuring that freedom of speech is both protected and properly utilized. As this blog continues, we will cover issues such as internet speech, the value of constructive disagreement, and how freedom of speech contributes to American democracy. Until then, we encourage you to leave your comments below! Are there any free speech basics we missed? Are there specific codes and legal decisions with which you disagree? Let us know, and contribute your voice to our conversation. After all, freedom of speech is meaningless unless we utilize it.