Since the 1970s, politics in the United States have been marked by increasing divisions between the left and the right, with both sides claiming that the other is infringing on their freedoms. Our nation’s institutions of higher education have become a battleground for these conflicts. In order to curb speech that could be considered derogatory, offensive, or harassing, many colleges and universities have instituted speech codes, defined as “any rule or regulation that limits, restricts, or bans speech beyond the strict legal limitations upon freedom of speech or press found in the legal definitions of harassment, slander, libel, and fighting words” (US Legal). The goal of speech codes are to provide a set of guidelines to differentiate between academic debate and discussions on the one hand, and derogatory language on the other.
The limitations on freedom of speech resulting from speech codes can include banning racist and sexist language, or anything else that might be considered offensive. Supporters of speech codes claim they increase respect and civility within debates and allow all members of the community to feel comfortable. Although at first glance all of these ideas point toward positive outcomes, the problems with speech codes lie in their subjective nature.
What one student considers offensive could be an essential part of another students academic argument. For instance, at Davidson College “bias incidents,” or incidents that create a “hostile environment,” go against their speech code, even if they do not rise to the level of a crime. The issue is that “hostile environment” does not provide a definition of what specifically is against the speech code. Because of the breadth of the term “hostile,” students could deem any environment in which they encounter disagreement as “hostile,” and therefore against the speech code. Another example of the gross generality of these codes comes from Dickinson College, where a punishable “bias incident” can “occur whether the act or expression was intentional or unintentional.”
Punishing students for an “unintentional expression” sets a dangerous precedent, especially at a Liberal Arts institution that is supposed to be training students to think critically. As opposed to using the “unintentional expression” as a segway to intellectual conversation and a teaching moment, some colleges and universities enable students to avoid discussing ideas with which they disagree. This is because the students can dismiss peers’ ideas for ostensibly having violated the speech code. Ironically, under these circumstances students often keep their ideas to themselves for fear of retaliation. Additionally, punishing students without allowing them to discuss with and learn from those that disagree with them only serves to make students feel disenfranchised and reinforces their beliefs, resulting in the increase of far-right groups, such as Identity Evropa or the American Identity Movement, on college campuses.
Further, many of these speech codes equate respect with comfort, but it is not the job of a university to make everyone feel comfortable. Rather it is to educate students by exposing them to a variety of ideas, cultural beliefs, and people. Prohibiting “hostile environments” and sheltering students from “unintentional expressions” while simultaneously claiming to champion diversity and inclusion is a mark of hypocrisy that tends to widen the political divide between the left and the right. By allowing students to hide from opposing ideas, colleges and universities may be enabling closed mindedness. Both the right and the left now stay in their ideological bubbles, and the classroom, which is where students ought to be challenged intellectually, often becomes an echochamber of recycled ideas.
I would like to make it clear that I am neither advocating for an atmosphere where students can belittle other students, nor one where professors impose their ideological beliefs on a classroom. Rather, I am advocating for a culture where ideas are discussed civilly, and through reasoned discourse. Ironically, speech codes—while well intentioned—-have often led to environments that make it impossible for people to disagree respectfully with one another. Ideally, a higher education requires that students be open to new ideas, that those ideas be discussed in a reasoned fashion, and that the whole process of discussion involve critical thinking. This will allow students to formulate their views and to always reserve a space for dialogue and the possibility of changing one’s mind. The alternative is extreme societal tension leading to an irreparable divide between opposing ideals.