Meet the Defenders of Free Speech on Campus

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By David Grasso-Ortega | 1:26 pm, May 17, 2016

We live in the age of safe spaces and thin-skinned student bodies, where free speech is often shut down because of hurt feelings. The intellectual atmosphere on college campuses has radically evolved in recent years to the point where “tolerance” is now often a one-sided affair.

In an era defined by protesters steamrolling jittery university leaders across the nation, some students are fighting back. These defenders of free speech share a belief that the safe-space crowd’s take-no-prisoners tactics are damaging free thought and expression.

What’s more, these free-speech advocates are not necessarily conservative. In fact, some of these students were quick to point out that they’re centrist — or even progressive — in their politics. In their efforts to defend free speech, they have faced significant blowback from a vocal minority that seeks to extinguish diversity of thought. In some extreme cases, those who dared to challenge the activist movements on campus have become the target of bullying and social tar-and-feathering.

These student leaders believe that college campuses are now ground zero for the future of free speech. Let’s meet a few of them:


Pi Pi Headshot May 2016.jpgPraveen, Duke University

Duke Open Campus Coalition

“I’ve been told that I hold views that are antithetical to women and minorities. People are quick to try to discredit everything I say.”

The last year has been tense for many universities, including Duke. Pi Praveen noticed changes on campus last year, when she began seeing instances of students who wanted to shut down free speech. “When our college newspaper’s opinions editor wrote something controversial, students started removing newspapers from the stands, and circulated a petition to remove him as editor,” Praveen said. “To us, that was the first instance of a problem.”

She helped found an organization, the Duke Open Campus Coalition, modeled after a student-run group at Princeton to stop what she and some of her classmates believed were assaults on free speech. “Protesters wanted to expand the definition of hate speech to include speech that offends or insults, or basically anything. … We agree that there are real concerns that people have in terms of discrimination, but as a community we need to be able to discuss things.”


headshot.JPGBeni Snow, Princeton University

Princeton Open Campus Coalition

“Somebody had to say something, or Princeton was going to end up in a really bad place.”

In the fall, Snow witnessed the protests at Princeton that demanded the university remove President Woodrow Wilson’s name from its buildings and programs. He then saw more insidious developments in the wake of the controversy that challenged academic openness and free speech.

“I’m politically very liberal, and if you look at the free-speech movement, it’s a liberal movement,” Snow said. “I don’t understand what happened, but recently, we’ve lost that.”

IMG_4232.jpgZachary Wood, Williams College

Uncomfortable Learning

“Our world is becoming more and more intensely politically correct, and that concerns me.”

Last Winter, Williams College’s president canceled an appearance by a conservative writer, John Derbyshire, because of his controversial blog post that many considered racist. Wood, the head of Uncomfortable Learning, an organization that seeks to promote robust and open discussion on college campuses, was extremely disappointed.

“In the end, it’s the administration’s fault for exercising poor leadership,” Wood said. “They do not promote or instill political tolerance. The administration claims to promote free speech, but in reality, they’re undermining it.”

Woods has faced backlash on campus and on social media for insisting on bringing controversial speakers to campus. “There’s a set of students who tend to be most vocal on campus, that believe everything I’ve done is worthy of scorn,” he told me.


Harry Elliot, Stanford University

Stanford Review Newspaper

“The culture of shutting people down doesn’t bode well for anyone. If we’re doing it at the best universities in the world, heavens knows what America is going to look like in 20 years.”

Elliot has been active in restoring the Western Civilization requirement at Stanford, something that has been extremely controversial. When a list of supporters became public, those people were contacted and harassed by campus activists. “They were contacted USSR style and queried as to why they were supporting this measure,” Elliot said. “These are the same people that want to boycott Israel, institute racial quotas in faculty hiring, and the forcible removal of Wells Fargo from campus.”

Elliot is deeply disturbed by the trends. “Silencing, calling people out and smearing people on social media — that’s campus liberalism nowadays. There is a consensus among a large number of people that the First Amendment wasn’t written for them.”


Headshot (1).jpg

Mackenzie Yaryura, Stanford University

Stanford Review Newspaper

“The culture of shutting people down is terrifying. Look at Congress, we elect people that don’t want to talk to each other, never mind compromise.”

Yaryura said that her involvement on campus has made people question her Hispanic identity. “I definitely think it’s a small group of people who are loud about having things a certain way,” she told me. “It’s hard to engage people in conversation.”

Yaryura has seen safe-space culture proliferate in many forms on Stanford’s campus. “I think safe spaces are interesting. Sometimes, it gives people a home identity, but it doesn’t have to extend into the academic setting. I think you should be challenged with questions.”

David Grasso-Ortega is originally from the Little Havana area in Miami.