Fast talk: It’s time to up­date the way we think about free ex­pres­sion.

Pen Amer­ica di­rec­tor Suzanne Nos­sel ex­plores five fac­tors shap­ing the de­bate over free ex­pres­sion

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @PENamer­i­can Suzanne Nos­sel is ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of PEN Amer­ica.

As col­lege stu­dents wrap up sum­mer breaks, uni­ver­sity ad­min­is­tra­tions are gird­ing for an­other round of cam­pus bat­tles over is­sues of free speech, protest, and the uni­ver­sity’s role as a set­ting for ed­u­ca­tion and in­tel­lec­tual ex­plo­ration. For those a step re­moved from to­day’s col­lege stu­dents (alumni, donors, par­ents and pun­dits), th­ese pe­ri­odic flare-ups have of­ten been taken as dis­may­ing ev­i­dence of a gen­er­a­tion’s in­tol­er­ance to­ward op­pos­ing views and free speech. Stu­dents who seek to shut down speech that of­fends — through calls to dis­in­vite speak­ers, pun­ish of­fen­sive re­marks or shout down op­po­nents — have been dis­missed as cod­dled, un­en­light­ened, en­ti­tled, anti-in­tel­lec­tual, dog­matic and in­fan­tile.

The de­sire to de­fend free speech and broad­mind­ed­ness is ad­mirable, but a cul­ture of re­spect for open dis­course and tol­er­ance for dis­agree­able opin­ions won’t be built through in­sults, hand-wring­ing, fi­nan­cial pres­sure from irate alums or even the le­gal man­dates now be­ing pro­posed in some state leg­is­la­tures. Those who worry about aca­demic free­dom and in­tel­lec­tual di­ver­sity on cam­pus would do well to grasp five fac­tors that are fu­el­ing the im­pulse some stu­dents and pro­fes­sors have to try to si­lence speech they con­sider harm­ful.

The first fac­tor is a strik­ing lack of un­der­stand­ing of the ba­sic premises that un­der­pin free speech. Many stu­dent lead­ers of the re­cent cam­pus protests evince only a cur­sory grasp of the First Amend­ment, much less the more com­plex and harder-to-ar­tic­u­late val­ues of free in­quiry and ex­pres­sion in which most Amer­i­can col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties take pride. Ac­cord­ing to a 2015 sur­vey by the New­seum In­sti­tute, 33 per­cent of Amer­i­cans have no idea what rights the First Amend­ment pro­tects. Sub­se­quent sur­veys re­vealed that 69 per­cent of stu­dents think uni­ver­si­ties should be able to re­strict of­fen­sive speech or slurs, and that young peo­ple are more likely than their el­ders to be­lieve that con­sti­tu­tional rights to re­li­gious free­dom do not ap­ply to faiths that are con­sid­ered ex­treme or fringe.

What’s more, some stu­dents, par­tic­u­larly non­white stu­dents, re­port that their pri­mary ex­pe­ri­ence with such stric­tures has oc­curred when “free speech” has been used to jus­tify or ex­cuse racist com­ments. One promi­nent stu­dent leader from the Uni­ver­sity of Mis­souri, when told that pun­ish­ing speech could vi­o­late the First Amend­ment, replied that “the First Amend­ment wasn’t writ­ten for me.” Her mean­ing was twofold: that when the Bill of Rights was drafted, each black Amer­i­can was treated as three-fifths of a per­son, and that her own prime ex­po­sure to the pre­cept was its in­vo­ca­tion to pro­tect the of­fen­sive speech of white stu­dents and ad­min­is­tra­tors. It doesn’t help that, of­ten, the only vo­cal ad­vo­cates for free speech on cam­pus lean to­ward the right. Stu­dents may find that the clubs they be­long to, the pro­fes­sors they ad­mire or the per­son­al­i­ties they fol­low on so­cial me­dia are not in­ter­ested in de­fend­ing the right to voice un­pop­u­lar views.

A sec­ond in­flu­ence shap­ing the cam­pus cli­mate for speech is grounded in tech­no­log­i­cal change. The old adage “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me” sounds quaint when in­sults, ex­posés, and quotes or video clips taken out of con­text can go vi­ral on­line, lead­ing swarms of an­tag­o­nists to ha­rass and in­tim­i­date a speaker with whom they dis­agree. The In­ter­net of­fers a largely anony­mous arena where hate­ful speech can eas­ily flour­ish and where smears are avail­able in per­pe­tu­ity for fam­ily mem­bers or po­ten­tial em­ploy­ers to stum­ble upon. The po­tency of so­cial me­dia has fueled calls to cur­tail and even shut down ser­vices like the now-de­funct anony­mous mes­sag­ing app Yik Yak that seem to fuel cy­ber­bul­ly­ing. This makes it hard to ar­gue that speech can­not do real dam­age and, cor­re­spond­ingly, that pro­tec­tions against harm­ful speech are un­war­ranted.

A third cause re­lates to the cur­rent move­ment for so­cial equal­ity in the United States. Our so­ci­ety has re­formed many of the most ob­vi­ous le­gal and struc­tural man­i­fes­ta­tions of racism, sex­ism and anti-gay bias. Now, the im­per­a­tive to tackle more sub­tle and in­sid­i­ous forms of dis­crim­i­na­tion or ex­clu­sion — in­clud­ing the qui­etly den­i­grat­ing terms and un­con­scious stereo­types that may re­veal and en­trench im­plicit bias — has rightly grown. Lan­guage is un­avoid­ably im­pli­cated in this next phase of trans­for­ma­tion. In fact, the evo­lu­tion of lan­guage to re­flect chang­ing un­der­stand­ings of race, gen­der and cul­ture is noth­ing new and does not sim­ply in­di­cate po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness run amok. The terms “Ne­gro,” “col­ored” and “Ori­en­tal” are all re­minders that chang­ing mores rou­tinely ren­der cer­tain words out of bounds. As un­fa­mil­iar as some may find gen­der-neu­tral pro­nouns or ne­ol­o­gisms such as Lat­inx, the in­sis­tence on them fits into this tra­di­tion, and the jus­ti­fi­ca­tions be­hind them de­serve a re­spect­ful hear­ing.

A fourth fac­tor re­lates to our po­lar­ized and con­tentious po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment. The tone of po­lit­i­cal dis­course had been de­gen­er­at­ing well be­fore Don­ald Trump ar­rived on the scene, but his cam­paign and elec­tion — achieved through his dis­tinc­tively im­pu­dent style — have helped to nor­mal­ize pub­lic speech that is in­tem­per­ate, per­son­ally in­sult­ing, and deroga­tory to­ward women, the dis­abled, Mus­lims, African Amer­i­cans, Jews and many other vul­ner­a­ble groups.

The United States has the most pro­tec­tive stan­dard for hate speech in the world, yet un­writ­ten codes of ci­vil­ity and plu­ral­ism have, at least for the past few decades, largely con­fined overtly big­oted sen­ti­ments to the mar­gins of so­ci­ety. With th­ese views now voiced among some of Trump’s sup­port­ers and with the pres­i­dent him­self re­pu­di­at­ing them re­luc­tantly, if at all, mem­bers of tar­geted mi­nor­ity groups un­der­stand­ably feel un­der siege, lack­ing con­fi­dence that their gov­ern­ment will pro­tect them. Stu­dents, mean­while, see their cam­puses as places of refuge: a home where they can learn and so­cial­ize in se­cu­rity and rel­a­tive com­fort. If stu­dents wit­ness a per­mis­sive en­vi­ron­ment for hate­ful speech in Amer­i­can so­ci­ety writ large, they will be more in­sis­tent in their de­mand for safe­guards that pre­vent such at­ti­tudes from in­vad­ing their schools.

The fi­nal de­vel­op­ment is that not all free speech stan­dard-bear­ers come in peace. Con­ser­va­tive com­men­ta­tors in­clud­ing Milo Yiannopou­los, Ann Coul­ter and Richard Spencer style them­selves as de­fend­ers of free speech for the pur­pose of build­ing their brands and gal­va­niz­ing fol­low­ers, sub­scribers and book-buy­ers, but they man­u­fac­ture con­fronta­tions to pro­voke con­tro­versy and draw head­lines, rather than to elu­ci­date ideas. This doesn’t mean they should be barred from cam­puses or si­lenced; they still have their rights. But those who rally in de­fense of their free­dom to speak, and those who in­vite them to speak, should en­gage not only the ques­tion of their rights but also the sub­stance of their mes­sage. Free speech can­not be turned into a par­ti­san cause of the right: At its core, free ex­pres­sion is a pro­gres­sive con­cept and a lib­eral value. We prize the right of all to speak be­cause we want equal rights for all.

A ro­bust de­fense of free speech on cam­pus should be an en­light­ened de­fense, one that is alert to the con­cerns and ar­gu­ments roil­ing uni­ver­si­ties now. A first step for those who rightly fear for the fu­ture of free speech should be di­a­logue with stu­dents — his­tor­i­cally the most im­pas­sioned de­fend­ers of cam­pus free speech. To mo­bi­lize a new gen­er­a­tion in that tra­di­tion will re­quire lis­ten­ing to and un­der­stand­ing how it sees ques­tions of race, gen­der and what it takes for a school to be a suit­able set­ting for learn­ing. Such con­ver­sa­tions and en­gage­ment ef­forts are not an al­ter­na­tive to a staunch in­tel­lec­tual, po­lit­i­cal and le­gal de­fense of free speech prin­ci­ples. They are a nec­es­sary en­abler of it.

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