Students Aren’t Able To Cope With Free Speech, Claims PEN America

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By Joanna Williams | 5:40 am, October 19, 2016

The latest skirmish in the ongoing campus battle between free speech advocates and social justice warriors comes courtesy of PEN America, an association of writers and editors dedicated to the promotion of literature and free expression.

Sadly, the publication this week of And Campus For All: Diversity, Inclusion and Free Speech at American Universities, shows that PEN is just as confused about the meaning of free expression as many students.

PEN deny there is a crisis of free speech on campus. In fact, they go further and argue that  ‘protests and forms of expression are treated as if they are incursions on free speech when in fact they are manifestations of free speech.’

So, according to PEN, the Yale students who shouted down the advisor who suggested they should decide Halloween costumes for themselves and, as adults, deal with those they considered offensive, were simply exercising their right to free speech.

Unlike the Free Speech Movement that swept across universities in the 1960s, many of today’s student protesters want to restrict speech instead of opening up debate. They use the hard fought right to free speech to prevent anyone with views they find offensive from enjoying the same rights. This is the death of free expression.

PEN support free speech but want to use it to outlaw words they find offensive. This confusion is widespread today. A recent survey of 3,000 American students, cited by PEN, suggests that only 22 per cent of them support restrictions on free speech but 63 per cent would back policies to restrict Halloween costumes based on stereotypes.

In other words, although free speech sounds good, when some people might be offended it needs to be reined in.

Elsewhere, the PEN report makes some important points in support of academic freedom. It argues against student ‘no platforming’ visiting speakers. It suggests the campus should be a place of physical safety but not somewhere that students can shelter from ideas. It also cautions that free speech mustn’t be allowed to become the preserve of the political right.

Unfortunately, PEN attempts to balance support for free speech with the promotion of inclusion. It recognises the impact of microaggressions, encourages students to use ‘thoughtful speech’ and supports individual academics who choose to use trigger warnings. PEN tells students they have a right not to be offended.

The flip side of this is that there is no right to be offensive, even unintentionally. Students must monitor their speech and actions and self-censor so as not to cause upset. The condescending belief that some students are unable to cope with free speech and need extra protection from the harm words might inflict upon them only ever leads to censorship and restrictions.

Inclusion and diversity 2016-style is not a demand for equality but a demand for differential treatment, for privileged speech not free speech. Too often, universities have a tick-box approach to diversity: people might look different but they must all think the same.

PEN usefully highlight the danger that students come to see free speech as ‘a prerequisite of the privileged, used to buttress existing hierarchies of wealth and power’. Indeed, the beauty of free speech is that it allows everyone to say what they think irrespective of their gender, social status, skin colour or sexuality. Obviously not everyone has access to the same public platforms or resources but this means we always need to make the case for more free speech not less.

What the PEN report fundamentally misunderstands is that free speech is something we either have or we don’t have. We can’t have a little bit of free speech. Anyone who is serious about arguing for free speech must reject the PEN America Principles.