4 Things Everyone Gets Wrong About Free Speech and College
If you've been paying attention to the news, then you've probably seen a lot of thinkpieces about college student protests and free speech. The conflict seems to be between "PC culture," which discourages certain terms and words, and our Constitutionally Protected Freedom of Speech, which is simultaneously our most important right and apparently the most delicate, since three-dozen college kids with some particle board can eradicate it forever in an afternoon.
The problem is that this supposed conflict only makes sense on the surface. If you actually look into the details of these stories, you'll find that a lot of the assumptions we're making about what's going on on college campuses is actually way wrong. Because, you see ...
We Only Care About Free Speech Fights When We Get to Punch Down
Articles about how modern college kids hate the first amendment have become more prevalent than STDs at a frat house. There's one I wrote, for example, and then this one about "The New Intolerance of Student Activism," and another one that outright says that "some of the most potent threats to free speech these days come not from our government or corporations, but from our citizenry." The "citizenry" he's referring to is, of course, college kids at schools like Mizzou and Yale.
Here's the short version of both the stories we're all talking about: At Mizzou, a bunch of protesters were caught on camera refusing to let journalists into their demonstration. They blocked one photographer's shots, and a professor threatened to "muscle" another student with a camera. Yale was home to a similar viral video. You can see a student screaming at an administrator, "Who the fuck hired you?! ... is not about creating an intellectual space!" These stories seem to fit the "coddled college student who hates freedom" narrative perfectly, right? First the students tried to silence journalists, then they said that feeling comfortable was more important than education. It's official: Kids these days suck.
Even if we assume that the critics are right totally right, and that these are just a bunch of stupid brats who don't understand free speech, I gotta ask: why are these the stories that get our blood all angered up on this issue? Isn't this stuff exactly what we expect from college students? Experimentation with thought? Weird ideas? Isn't that a big part of what free speech is? Or are we mad because, as proud defenders of the Constitution, we won't tolerate any "threat" to free speech, ever, no matter how innocuous? "I may disagree with what you say," we type proudly, "but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Then we sit back from our computers and smile with satisfaction, content in the knowledge that our Facebook statuses have made the world a better place.
"Your freedoms are protected, America."
Or maybe you're worried about the future, and you're quaking in your boots about what's going to happen once these kids grow up and start running the country. Well, if that's the case, then this next sentence should have you strapping on a bow and arrow and storming the Capitol: The same month that both the Mizzou protester stories went viral, a Missouri legislator tried to stop a University of Missouri grad student's research into abortion, saying that the school was breaking the law by allowing her to continue. This happened at literally the exact same school as the protests, and it's a way more cut-and-dry threat to free speech. The government is literally telling a grad student what they're allowed to study, which is precisely what the first amendment is meant to prevent.
Then there's the recent study which found that a quarter of American workers have had their boss ask them about their politics, and two-thirds of those people have been pressured to change their viewpoints to agree with the person giving them a paycheck. Again, these are huge stakes. A boss ransoming his employee's livelihood over political issues is at a Dickensian-villain level of evil. Sure, the study was just a single poll of a thousand people, but we know this stuff happens because of that time Murray Energy forced its Ohio workers to attend a Romney rally and hold signs which read "COAL STANDS WITH MITT."
These people were forced to be here, and they weren't paid.
You see, whenever someone says "I disagree, blah-dee-blah, right to say it," they're defending an ideal that's supposed to prevent these exact types of things from happening -- the powerful forcing the powerless to change their opinions to match the status quo. Oh, and by the way, that Mizzou professor resigned her post and apologized to the journalists, while the Yale administrator says that what has happened on campus "reflects the best tradition of free speech." Meanwhile, corporations are literally trying to rig our election process.
Notice that I'm making this argument with the assumption that the college kids are wrong. I can't stress this enough: Assuming these college kids are 100 percent wrong about everything they're saying, why do we fucking care? "Because college kids are always being oversensitive and ridiculous," you might say. "We're sick of their shit, and this is just the final straw."
Well, there's one big problem with that ...
Most Of The "College Kids Are Oversensitive!" Stories Are Bullshit
The trendy thing to say about college kids is that they're too thin-skinned, too easily offended, and too censorious. "You damn kids, with your safe spaces and microaggressions," we scream from our lawns, waving our canes with one hand and helicoptering our dicks with the other. "Just stop thinking up new things that I have to learn!"
The reality is that this is all a bunch of malarky, like everything that stupid old people have shrieked at college kids since college was invented in 1998 (It started as an alternate reality game for the film Can't Hardly Wait, but got out of hand). The problem is that this myth of fragile, easily-offended 20-something has absolutely no basis in reality, and all the evidence is nothing more than the standard "signs of the times" that old people and reactionaries always misinterpret. We're seeing more college students getting offended because instead of writing in their journals, they're posting about it on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
"But we're seeing it happen!" you say. "We've also seen Wesleyan students debate cutting funding for the student newspaper after it ran an op-ed criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement. At Mount Holyoke, students canceled a production of The Vagina Monologues because they felt it excluded transgender women. Protests led to the withdrawal of Condoleezza Rice as commencement speaker at Rutgers and Christine Lagarde at Smith."
(Special thanks to this New York Times columnist for being my straw man today. You're a goddamn hero, sir.)
The problem is that if you actually read those stories instead of just phrasing them in the most alarmist way possible, you'll find that none of them happened the way you think. The Vagina Monologues wasn't just abruptly cancelled; it was replaced with a different show that they felt might be more inclusive of trans people. The goal was to add more perspectives, which is literally the opposite of censorship. The "Commencement Speaker Protest" story has a similar issue: According to a someone who went to Smith College and actually spoke with the protesters (almost like, ya know, a journalist), they weren't even trying to block the speaker at all, and were surprised when they decided not to show up. The real story was "Student Protesters Challenge Speaker, Speaker Takes Her Ball and Goes Home Like A Baby With Poopy Pants."
"They should've been thanking me for being paid $35,000 to talk to them for 90 minutes."
As for the newspaper at Wesleyan, it's sort of important that they didn't cut funding because the paper criticized Black Lives Matter -- they cut funding because the article in question had terrible fact-checking and made no sense. Obviously, that's murky territory since it's always the first criticism anyone makes of an article they disagree with, but figuring that sort of stuff out is exactly why student newspapers exist. I ran a student newspaper in college, and let me tell you, motherfuckers were trying to cut my funding every day, for dozens of reasons. Some disagreed with me politically, some wanted my funding for their projects, and some just liked protesting stuff. This constant struggle to figure out how to embrace free speech while still making sure that the official student paper wasn't just the word "SHITBARF" typed 500 times on 16 page leaflets distributed around campus wasn't a problem. It was part of our education. If I'm wrong about this, then hey! New York Times! The student body president once threatened to sue me for making fun of him! Write an article about me!
In fact, the only reason I used the word "most" in the title of this entry was because, hey, maybe there are genuine cases in which college kids have grossly, irresponsibly attacked our country's First Amendment rights, and I just haven't been able to find one. Anywhere.
All I'm saying is that if you disagree with the protesters, it's really lame to pretend that it's over a "free speech" issue. Because what's actually going on here is that a largely powerless group (young minorities and women) are using the First Amendment to try to raise awareness of the problems they're facing, and our response is to shout at them to shut up and say they threaten our way of life. Which is, frankly, how people always respond when a new group tries to ask for equality, respect, and justice. And that's actually the point, because ...
We're More Interested in Finding Reasons to Ignore Them Than Hearing What They Have to Say
Let's go back to those terrible, terrible Mizzou protesters and their inconceivable, tyrannical decision to not let journalists into their demonstration. It turns out that was part of their damn protest. They'd stopped trusting journalists, on account of how the media has been portraying their methods as ridiculous instead of exploring whether their actual message has merit. Besides, they need the corporate media less, because they have social media now.
See, the more you look into what they were actually saying, the easier it is to understand their outrage. Their campus has been home to some dark shit. There have been hundreds of hate crimes, multiple students have publicly said that they don't feel safe because of their race, a black professor says she's been called the N-word more times than she can count, and someone drew a goddamn poop-swastika on a wall in one of the restrooms. A swastika, guys. Made of poop.
But Mizzou's protests pretty much flew under the radar until someone started the rumor that the the poop swastika was a hoax and someone else released footage of that Mizzou professor stepping out of line -- then the media swooped in like a flock of flying monkeys on a Kansan with a broken ankle. The absolute nadir of the whole thing was Breitbart (obviously) claiming that one faked poop-smear means that we never have to take any battle for equality seriously ever again.
"Because good is dumb."
Any protest is a non-story until we can find a reason to make fun of it and pretend the protesters are wrong. Even if the people aren't really protesting. Here's a story about a woman who tweeted a single joke about a weirdly-named lipstick color. Because the outrage-over-outrage machine decided to blow it out of proportion, within days, the maker of that lipstick was refusing to apologize and defending their artistic freedom. Everyone just assumes everyone else is outraged and boy does that piss them off. "All this outrage is unacceptable. It's making me indignant, furious, angry, and positively scandalized with disapproval. I just have to write an op-ed about it."
The important part of this issue, though, is that we're pretending that this is one of the few serious stories to bubble up in our news feed, when in reality it's the opposite. The whole "free speech" argument is an excuse to ignore what's really going on. It's a mindless distraction disguised as an intriguing think-piece. Don't you see? The clickbait is evolving. Stupidity and intelligence have become indistinguishable. This is Spinal Tap! was right.
And speaking of ignoring reality ...
Nothing About This Controversy Is New
"But don't you see?" says this straw man (whom I should clarify is no longer that New York Times columnist, but a new straw man we will call "Gormand Cocksbain"). "The problem is that these protesters don't know what they're doing. They're never going to make a difference if they keep inviting violence and being aggressive with their language and not respecting elders. It's because I support Black Lives Matter and all those other SJW issues that I criticize their movement." And you're not alone in saying that, Mr. Cocksbain. Mike Huckabee and even Dr. Martin Luther King's niece have criticized Black Lives Matter for "magnifying" problems instead of trying to fix them.
And sure, it's true that every Black Lives Matter protest makes people nervous about a violent outburst, and that leftist newspapers and even prominent leaders in the black religious community have accused them of inciting violence. It's also true that members of the black community have spoken out publicly against them, accusing them of inciting more violence and calling them "righteous murderers." Oh, wait -- sorry, I got my notes mixed up. Turns out all that stuff was actually true of the Civil Rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King. Gosh, this is so embarrassing. I should really learn how to use my backspace key.
Anyway, here's something I feel like not enough people are saying: Regardless of whether or not you agree with #BlackLivesMatter, we're not these protesters' fucking moms. It's not our job to make sure they're polite. Social change and protest is messy, in part because it's exposing a mess. They're pulling up a rug that hides a lot of dust and dirt and blood and muck and other things we'd rather continue to pretend isn't there. But that doesn't mean we get to sit in our overstuffed chairs with our feet up on the coffee table saying, "Oh, no no no, you're pulling the rug back all wrong. You have to lift and tug and -- oh, Christ, just stop. Just stop. Don't even bother pulling the rug back if you're going to do it that way. No equal rights for you until you learn some manners, young lady."
"We're not talking about a single hate crime until you pull your pants up!"
Let's be honest with ourselves for a second: The best part of having an opinion is angrily winning an argument. Triumphantly putting someone else in their place. Hurting someone we disagree with, and being able to be extra mean because we know they're wrong about something important, and they had it coming. It's one of the darkest part of human nature, and we indulge it every time we pretend we give a shit about the first amendment when really we just like being condescending. I guess what I'm saying is that it's going to be really embarrassing to explain to the youth of the future that in my day, the people demonstrating in the street were called enemies of free speech.
JF Sargent is an editor and columnist for Cracked. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
For something absolutely worth protesting about, please read 5 Uncomfortable Truths About Rape on College Campuses. And make sure that if you protest, you don't do it in a hypocritical way. Otherwise you may look dumb, like the homoerotic shirtless men protesting gay rights in 5 Hilarious Ways Angry Protests Proved The Other Side Right.
Subscribe to our YouTube channel to see that even though you have free speech, you should really consider what you say in An Urgent Message To Guys Who Comment On Internet Videos, and watch other videos you won't see on the site!
Also follow us on Facebook, because you'll need a break from the endless slew of outraged college kids posting in your feed.