Millennials question free speech

Nikol Slatinska

Are Americans taking their advantage of First Amendment rights too far? According to data from the Pew Research Center, 40 percent of millennials think so and would be okay with limiting free speech if it meant protecting minority groups from offensive public commentary.
Margaret Russell, a professor of Constitutional law at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, California, believes it is more impactful to protest and speak out against hate speech than forbidding it outright.
“I think that banning speech is usually problematic because of the difficulty of identifying consistent definitions of what is ‘harmful,’” Russell said. “For example, if the government is given the role of censoring people’s speech, it is more likely to use that power to decrease the power and liberty of individuals in other ways. Why should the government define what is ‘offensive’ when we all have differing views?”
Russell tells her students it is imperative to act against offensive speech if they think the First Amendment should not protect it, and that giving up control to the government disempowers the public.
Senior LaTia Glasgow said even more problems would arise if the government tried to limit free speech. Overall, she believes free speech should never be restricted, and that anyone should be able to express their opinions even if they are offensive because being American grants that freedom.
“Although protecting people of color is important, I do not believe that we should take away people’s rights in order to prevent hurt feelings, because it’s impossible,” Glasgow said. “These amendments are what our country is based on, and violating them would make our country ‘less free.’”
Limiting free speech will actually oppress minorities even more, said Katie Barrows, who is speaking for the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). The organization’s mission is to sustain individual rights at American colleges. Its experience with the topic of free speech showed that the students who have no tolerance toward topics they disagree with are the ones that call for censorship of speech they find offensive. President and CEO of FIRE, Greg Lukianoff, stated that students “are arguing not for freedom of speech, but, rather, freedom from speech.
“As history proves, restricting freedom of expression always works to the detriment of oppressed minorities,” Barrows said. “Instead of shutting down bad ideas and hateful language, offensive speech should be met with more speech.”
Barrows pointed out that President Obama spoke on the matter, saying, “…you don’t have to be fearful of somebody spouting bad ideas. Just out-argue them. Beat ’em. Make the case as to why they’re wrong. Win over adherents. That’s how things work in a democracy.”
[quote cite=”LaTia Glasgow”]Although protecting people of color is important, I do not believe that we should take away people’s rights in order to prevent hurt feelings, because it’s impossible.[/quote] In terms of why millennials are more open to the idea of limiting speech as opposed to older generations, Russell believes it has to do with the fact that there is more awareness of the underlying issues of racism, homophobia and other forms of bigotry in today’s world. Also, younger generations are more exposed to the physical, psychological, and educational harm that hate speech and hate crimes can generate.
Many of today’s college students come from protective childhoods, Barrows argued. Nowadays, adults go out of their way to make sure their children are physically and emotionally safe, which causes them to be sheltered from opposing viewpoints.
“Our culture has become more partisan and with each side retreating into its own echo chambers. It’s therefore unsurprising that students arrive at college expecting comfort and ideological purity,” Barrows said. “Lastly, social media has transformed the landscape for today’s college students: it allows them to demand solidarity [based on ideological purity] and shun those who stray from the accepted view.”
In past years, the destructive effects of hateful slurs was not displayed as publicly as it is today, which ultimately led to older generations not being mindful of the offensiveness of some derogatory terms, Russell said.
“Education, empowerment and communication are key in the struggle to eliminate bias,” Russell said. “I find that the more we integrate our everyday experiences with people of different backgrounds, the more stimulating and enlightening our understanding of bigotry and its effects.”
Barrows agrees that the best education is more speech, and that when bad ideas are refuted everyone benefits. Allowing students and faculty to speak openly on their views is the most effective thing a school can do to eliminate hate, and students will simultaneously begin to appreciate the power of the First Amendment and use it to address hateful speech. Being allowed to express and refute opinions with no restrictions permits the public to learn what is considered offensive and also fights the ideas and biases underlying offensive language.
“Responding to hateful speech with more speech promotes critical thinking,” Barrows said, “which challenges us to analyze why we believe the things we do.”