Is there free speech on college campuses? | WVIA

Is there free speech on college campuses?

Last Updated by MPR News, Staff on


British academic Joanna Williams wants to know why so many college students don't want to hear, or have the opportunity to challenge, controversial and opposing views. And why so many faculty members self-censor so they won't have to issue "trigger warnings" on their course material.

It's these kinds of practices in higher education that have lead Williams to believe there is less freedom of speech on college campuses than there is in society at large.

And, being a liberal herself, Williams doesn't believe the efforts to promote free speech on college campuses are some kind of right-wing plot.

• NewsCut: When 'free speech' is a cover for racism

"People have said to me quite directly that this is a conspiracy to smuggle in right-wing politics through the back door," Williams said. "That if you are arguing for free speech or arguing for academic freedom then you are automatically assumed to be on the political right."

What we see most often among young people today is a rhetorical support for these freedoms, Williams said, but a squeamishness when they are put into practice.

While students are often quick to say they value freedom of speech, many also believe preserving the integrity of minority groups is more important than unlimited freedom of expression.

These conflicting ideologies are birthed from a blurring of the lines between linguistic violence and actual violence, Williams said.

"I would say that nowadays the idea that words can wound, the idea that words can inflict psychic harm on people, that is actually seen as more damaging particularly to vulnerable individuals than physical harm," she said.

But these days almost any student can be labeled as needing protection, Williams said. While many students do struggle with mental illness, and it is a serious issue, a lot of the every day stresses that used to be considered part of growing up are now considered issues that require professional attention.

• More: Free speech and the 'weaponization' of political correctness

It's not just the students' fault though. Older generations like to dismiss this apprehension to combative ideas as entitlement — labeling the students as "snowflakes."

"I think what you see reflected in young people is very much a reflection of what they've been taught," Williams said.

Williams spoke September 21, 2017 at The Institute for Freedom and Community at St. Olaf College in Northfield. She teaches at the University of Kent in the U.K. and is education editor of the online magazine, Spiked. Her 2015 book is titled, "Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity: Confronting the Fear of Knowledge."

To listen to the speech, click the audio player above.
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