A recent survey of college students showed affirmation for free speech rights in some but not all contexts. They opposed by 72% letting colleges restrict political views offensive to certain groups. Seven in ten wanted to ban slurs or language intentionally offensive to others, and 54% acknowledged the climate on campus prevents some from saying what they believe because others might find it offensive. After a thorough airing of the issue, 66% at a Yale conference agreed free speech is under attack.
To enforce these bans and the restrictive speech climate, professors have used warnings about upcoming portions of the lecture or assigned readings that might cause emotional discomfort for some students. These alerts were known as “trigger warnings.” Colleges had also codified which themes and words were “off limits” on campus. These “speech codes” presented politically correct terms for the attributes of people and they prevented slurs or criticism on the basis of race, gender, religion, ability, etc.
Another limit to speech on campus is the concept of “microaggression.” Microaggressions are speech which in the mind of the listener seems to be offensive on grounds of race, gender, religion or ability, even if it does not use the officially proscribed words. Microaggressions generally require the offended party to announce the offense, since it often requires a hypersensitive ear to hear the so-called offensive.
Unfortunately, speech codes and trigger warnings required careful editing work and forethought by those planning classroom presentations. Reliance on pre-planned trigger warnings could not squelch every spontaneous idea that students might find offensive.
These gaps in the protective dome of political correctness have led to the minting of a new student right, namely, the “right to not hear conflicting points of view.” Students hope that right will support an echo-chamber of approved conventional groupthink where dissenting voices are infrequent and treated sternly as violators of student rights.
In another forum, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies want access to private communication records stored on iPhones. Evidently, they already have access to the communications on other phones. Slightly more than half of consumers object to giving up their privacy to help law enforcement. In other words, they cherish the “right to prevent sharing of private communications.”
Another group wants the right to suppress public information about them that they find embarrassing or troublesome. These people advocate a so-called “right to be forgotten,” i.e., prevent others from knowing what had been public knowledge. The “right to be forgotten” has acquired the force of law in the European Union and some in the US find it attractive.
If these claims of new “rights” are allowed to stand, our understanding of the genuine “free speech” right will be eroded. Most vexing in the “right to not hear conflicting points of view” is that this obligates free speech practitioners to stop speaking near anyone who does not want to hear it. That might be handy to invoke on some politicians.
The “right to prevent sharing of private communications” chills free speech, because it exposes speakers to retribution for their voicing of ideas that are unpopular. The “right to be forgotten” leaves a pothole where information once was available. It has the effect of warping the truth. This could easily mislead researchers, employers, journalists or investors.
These manipulations of free speech have the effect of blocking it, or forcing people to voice their private thoughts, or giving legal sanction to part-truths. The manipulations may be stylish in some quarters, but they undermine our constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech, and they cannot be tolerated.