Free Speech on College Campuses, Does It Exist Anymore? Sujit Choudhry Provides An Analysis

Sujit Choudhry UC Berkeley Free Speech

Public colleges and universities are supposed to be places that facilitate the free exchange of ideas. Freedom of speech is a right that is protected by the Constitution, but it's not something that should be taken for granted. It's easy to assume that of all places, college campuses would be bastions of the right to speak freely. These days, however, that's increasingly untrue. The recent violent protests at the University of California at Berkeley are just the most prominent example of the issue; it's popping up everywhere. What's it all about? Should hate speech be protected? Has political correctness gone too far? What role has the internet played in all of this? Read on to learn more.

A Backlash on Free Speech?

More than ever, the people of this country are divided. People can broadcast their views and ideas far and wide - and at a moment's notice - thanks to the internet. For whatever reason, people tend to be more fired up when disagreeing with one another than when agreeing, and the internet has exacerbated this tendency. The "us versus them" mentality is more pervasive than ever, and it appears to have infiltrated college campuses around the country.

The Incident at UC Berkeley

Although it is just one of many examples of the so-called attack on free speech at college campuses, the incident at UC Berkeley is important because that campus was dubbed the "Birthplace of Free Speech" in the 1960s, when students defied a campus ban on holding political information tables. The incident is also worthy of note because it involves a speaker who is considered by many to use hate speech.

Upon learning that alt-right celebrity and Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos had been invited to speak at UC Berkeley by the Berkeley College Republicans, there was a major uproar. Among other things, Yiannopoulos has made inflammatory remarks about pedophilia, so he is a very controversial figure. Many consider Breitbart to be a purveyor of hate speech too, so dozens of people came together to protest.

Unfortunately, what was supposed to be a peaceful protest turned anything but. According to university officials, the main problem is that many non-students were drawn to the protest and helped to escalate things. Fires were set, windows were smashed and a great deal of damage was done. President Trump worryingly threatened to pull all federal funds from the public university. However, he does not have the authority to do so.

Free Speech versus Hate Speech

When people think about the concept of freedom of speech, they often think that it means that everyone is allowed to say whatever they want whenever they want without any consequences. However, the constitution prevents the government from limiting free speech; it does not prevent others from reacting negatively to it. As noted by many scholars and researchers, banning hate speech, or bigoted speech, won't put an end to hate or bigotry.

Still, a public university like UC Berkeley is supposed to be a place where people feel welcome and safe about sharing their ideas and speaking their minds. When the university itself invites a speaker who is known for their divisiveness or even for their actual bigotry against certain groups, it threatens students' ability to feel safe and comfortable as needed. It is important to remember that a university event featuring an invited speaker is completely different from an individual's right to freedom of expression. When a college or university refuses to welcome someone to speak, they aren't actually impinging on the person's freedom of speech because the person can still share their views elsewhere.

Should Hate Speech Be Protected?

Not all universities have uninvited controversial speakers after protests erupted. Georgetown University, for example, allowed Nonie Darwish, a well-known anti-Islam writer and speaker, to go ahead and speak on campus despite protests in the weeks leading up to the event. To some people's way of thinking, hate speech should be allowed because it's important for people to know that such views exist. In other words, denying those views doesn't make them go away. However, a college campus is a place that is supposed to promote diversity, tolerance and acceptance. Allowing someone to speak who has clearly discriminatory and inflammatory views about certain groups of people directly contradicts those stated goals.

The Internet and Political Correctness

Without question, the internet has played a pivotal role in the current controversy regarding free speech on campus. In general, as mentioned before, the ability to freely disseminate ideas across the globe in the blink of an eye has fostered an "us versus them" mentality among many. The media undoubtedly plays a major role as well.

Increasingly, there is a backlash against so-called political correctness that is playing a role in all of this too. Some feel that because they are so afraid of offending someone, they are stifled from freely expressing themselves. Again, however, public universities and colleges are supposed to be welcoming, diverse and tolerant places. Allowing faculty, students or guests to publicly express views that ostracize others and make them feel unsafe is just not good policy. It's a complicated issue, to be sure, but the bottom line is that colleges are under no obligation to open their lecture halls to anyone simply because the Constitution guarantees the right of free speech.

Reflecting on the Incident at UC Berkeley with Professor Sujit Choudhry

The right to freedom of speech as expressed in the Constitution is far more complex than most people realize. The current issue regarding free speech on campuses clearly reflects this. One of the best ways to make sense of the issue is by consulting with someone who understands the Constitution well. Professor Sujit Choudhry, a constitutional law professor at UC Berkeley, is a great example of someone who has the proper credentials. Formerly dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law, Choudhry holds law degrees from the University of Toronto, Oxford and Harvard. He is also a Rhodes Scholar, and he has published more than 90 articles, working papers, book chapters and reports.

Currently, Sujit Choudhry serves as Director of the Center for Constitutional Transitions. He is an internationally recognized expert on comparative constitutional law and politics. In fact, Choudhry is often called to countries around the world to assist in the constitution-building process. Given that he is the I. Michael Heyman Professor of Law at UC Berkeley Law School, he surely has unique and interesting insights into the protests that occurred there back in February. Choudhry can easily break down the difference between hate speech and free speech, for example. It will be interesting to hear his take on free speech on college campuses in the years to come.

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