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What’s Missing From Stories on Campus Free Speech?

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Campus speech has become one of the hottest topics in higher education — especially in recent months, as clashes have turned violent and drawn the attention of President Donald Trump and the Justice Department.

But reporters aren’t getting the story quite right — at least according to a panel of experts who spoke about the issue at an Education Writers Association seminar this month. Some argued they’re covering the topic too much — that the vast majority of campuses have robust speech freedom, and that journalists are making too much of a few incidents. Others argued reporters  are ignoring some real concerns about campus free speech in favor of titillating stories about provocateurs such as Milo Yiannopoulos or Richard Spencer.

Either way, reporters would do well to step back a bit, said Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed, who led the discussion.

“Some context is important,” Jaschik said.

With one report after another of speakers being shouted down or disinvited from campuses, a narrative has emerged that controversial people just can’t speak on campuses anymore. That’s clearly not true, Jaschik said.

Jaschik pointed out that on the same night that protestors shut down a talk by Charles Murray at Middlebury — which became a national story — the editor of a controversial Danish magazine that published cartoons of Mohammed spoke at Franklin & Marshall College. While his appearance drew protests, he was still able to speak.

“At most campuses, most days, there are controversial people who speak,” Jaschik said.

Free Speech vs. Inclusivity

The reality is that even as students at campuses across the country have successfully shut down speakers, most college students value free speech. Seventy percent of them favor having an open campus environment that allows all types of speech, even that which is offensive, according to a recent survey by Gallup.

The catch is they also care a lot about inclusivity and diversity, and those two concerns can come into conflict if speakers express views that denigrate certain types of people, or at the least can be perceived to be insensitive. According to the Gallup survey, most college students — 56 percent — believe protecting free speech rights is extremely important in a democracy. But nearly as many, 52 percent, say the same about promoting an inclusive society welcoming of diverse groups. When asked to choose which is more important, they pick inclusion over free speech, 53 percent to 46 percent, according to the survey.

“College students value both inclusivity and diversity and free speech,” Brandon Busteed of Gallup, another member of the EWA panel, said. “They care deeply about both of these things.”

Protests, Plus Context

Students should actually be protesting more, and reporters should broaden their coverage beyond protests argued Linus Owens, an associate professor of sociology at Middlebury College. Owens is writing on the current wave of campus protests, focusing specifically on how student activism is covered in the media.

His assessment: Not well.

“Y’all in the media should be covering these protests less,” Owens said. “You’re doing a terrible job of covering it. You’re not just overemphasizing rare events, but you’re missing and distorting the actual issues that are at play — some of which hinge on free speech, but not all.”

He argued that stories often are missing a key focus: Who has the power? It’s an important question, especially when writing about “discomfort” some students feel when inflammatory ideas are pushed on the campuses they attend.

“We use a lot of bad cliches to talk about ‘the marketplace of ideas’ that treats debate as both neutral and that the goal is primarily about changing people’s minds and reaching some kind of truth. By framing it in that way, I think it misses what’s truly going on,” Owens said. “If you take power out of the equation, all discomfort looks equal — both in the way it is experienced and more importantly, its material effects on individuals and institutions. Discomfort trivializes the way speech and speakers affect institutions and the students who go to them.”

“It ignores the fact that some people feel uncomfortable nearly all the time” at elite institutions, he said.

While many students may indeed feel unwelcome on campus, the First Amendment doesn’t offer much wiggle room in the protections it extends, especially at public universities, said Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota. Kirtley, who calls herself a “free speech absolutist,” said there’s “a lot of remedial education that can be done and should be done” by journalists through their work. Reporters, she said, “should not take for granted that people understand these fundamental principles of the First Amendment.”

Pivot from Provocateurs

And while some of the speakers who have stolen the most headlines — provocateurs like Yiannopoulos or white supremacists like Spencer — may be launching campus tours less to spark honest debate than to draw attention, there are speakers who have been shut down, even though they have good intentions.

Josh Blackman, an associate professor of law at the South Texas College of Law Houston, said he is such a speaker.

Blackman, a conservative, shared his experience while trying to give a talk on free speech at the City University of New York. Protesters showed up and before the speech, campus security asked him what his “exit strategy” was. “It got real at that moment,” Blackman said.

Still, Blackman went on to at least attempt to give his speech as he said protesters — citing his views on immigration and health care — shouted at him and attempted to shame those in the audience.

“I felt like an ambassador to a foreign country,” Blackman said. “These students had never heard someone right-of-center on their campus. If I changed one mind based on the debate, it was worth it.”

Blackman said several students thanked him afterward.

“There’s Milo and there’s Ann Coulter,” Blackman said, “but then there are hundreds of other speakers who do have valuable things to offer. I was there to make people see things they hadn’t seen before.”

“Don’t just make it about Milo and Ann Coulter,” he said. “Consider the softer targets.”