Campus freedom for the speech we don’t want to hear

In this Thursday, April 27, 2017 file photo, demonstrators shout slogans directed at city hall during a rally for free speech near the University of California, Berkeley campus in Berkeley, Calif. Ann Coulter's speech that day was canceled amid threats of violence. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

With terms like “trigger warnings,” “safe spaces,” and “microaggression” a regular part of student orientation, it’s hard to argue that something isn’t going on with free speech on college campuses.

Critics say it is nothing less than a movement by some students to scour their schools of words, ideas and discussion that might cause discomfort or give offense, an attack on what many would argue is the very purpose of a learning environment.

Instructors complain of anxiety over saying or allowing something to be said that offends a student and prompts an often anonymous complaint to school administrators.

Comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock say they have stopped booking college gigs because of the hostile culture of sensitivity and grievance.

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Prominent political and academic figures disinvited from campus appearances for fear certain segments of the student body would take offense, the so-call heckler’s veto. Some who did make it onto campus were shouted down, harassed or even physically attacked.

The only option is to invite “noncontroversial speakers," whose ideas are so anodyne as to not challenge the outlook of anyone, a difficult task to pull off and the obvious antithesis of what a school of higher learning should be about.

That was the backdrop Thursday (March 21) as President Donald Trump announced an executive order to require schools receiving federal research grants to uphold certain protections for free speech on campus.

The order is similar to a bill passed by the Louisiana Legislature and signed into law by Gov. John Bel Edwards last year that requires state colleges and universities to spell out free speech rights, publicize them in handbooks and on school websites and make clear that students cannot expect to be shielded from opinions that they find offensive or disagreeable.

Lawmakers noted that Louisiana colleges and universities had managed to avoid the backlash and unrest that roiled other campuses across the country, but said it was important to be proactive and make it clear that open debate and intellectual inquiry is necessary for academic pursuits.

Some questioned the need for Trump’s order, which essentially demands that public and private colleges do what they were supposed to be doing all along, only this time with the threat of financial punishment for failure.

“Taxpayer dollars should not subsidize anti-First Amendment institutions,” Trump said during a signing ceremony in the East Room of the White House. “Universities that want taxpayer dollars should promote free speech, not silence free speech. If a college or university does not let you speak, we will not give them money.”

The president entangled the issue in the political and culture wars by announcing his plans for the order at the Conservative Political Action Conference meeting earlier this month and surrounding himself with members of conservative student groups at the signing.

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The conservative viewpoint is the minority perspective on many campuses at the moment and the one being opposed in the most recent high-profile examples. But it isn’t and won’t always be the case.

The focus here should not be on ideology but on resisting a campus culture that is overly sensitive to giving offense or causing discomfort at the expense of a free and open debate. That doesn’t mean you won’t get a failing history grade for discounting slavery as a prime cause of the American Civil War on your final exam. But you should be free to bring the topic up for a full airing. That’s how learning happens. No pain, no gain.

In their book “The Coddling of the American Mind,” First Amendment expert Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt cited three “Great Untruths” they believe are the cause of many free-speech controversies on U.S. campuses. They are ideas that have infected too many students:

“What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker,” the idea that exposure to offensive or difficult ideas is traumatic and should be avoided.

“Always trust your feelings,” meaning you should reject or discount any idea that upset you.

“Us versus them,” the tribal thinking that all disagreements are between good people and bad people and we, of course, are the good people.

The list is relevant not just for college campuses but for everyone who wants to have legitimate discussions about sensitive topics.

Opening ourselves to painful or offensive issues, getting past our feelings to engage in intellectual investigation and reminding ourselves that just because someone disagrees with us doesn't make them evil can only improve our civil discourse.

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When he founded the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson said:

"This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it."

Jefferson would likely be considered a controversial speaker today, but he got that part about education right.

Tim Morris is a columnist on the Latitude team at NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune. Latitude is a place to share opinions about the challenges facing Louisiana. Follow @LatitudeNOLA on Facebook and Twitter. Write to Tim at tmorris@nola.com.