Everyone must be wary of free-speech hysteria

Sam Groves

Presumably, there are few things on which Sen. Ted Cruz and Susan Rice, former Obama administration national security advisor, agree. But at the Texas Tribune Festival last month, they struck similar notes on the question of free speech on college campuses. Both seemed eager to chastise students for being unreceptive to
different points of view.

“I’m really worried about what’s happening on college campuses,” Rice told her audience on  Sept. 23. “We need to teach our kids how to think critically. We need to teach them how to analyze information and be able to assess whether it is true or false, and not just consume that which they’re comfortable with — that comes to them from sources that they prefer.”

At his event the next day, Cruz bemoaned what he saw as climate change dogmatism on college campuses, complaining that “the response in college that’s encouraged is when facts or data to the contrary are presented, to hiss or yell them down rather than to actually consider them.”

“That’s not the purpose of education,” Cruz added. “The purpose of education is to learn to think and think critically.”

But Cruz and Rice fail to understand the unique experience of college students. Along with the countless other public figures heralding the death of free speech, they cannot grasp the extent to which Americans — particularly younger Americans — are not deprived of free speech but instead surrounded by it. We’ve never had more of it. And today’s generation of college students was the first to grow up in that reality.

In a time of constant access to information, it’s absurd to say that someone like Milo Yiannopoulos — whose “Free Speech Week” event at the University of California, Berkeley was canceled last month due to logistical issues — was denied a platform. Yiannopoulos’ Facebook page has more than 2.2 million followers, and virtually anything he says publicly is treated as noteworthy in some corner of the internet.

It’s also ridiculous to say that college students are truly sheltered by trigger warnings and “safe spaces.” Yes, in this world of constant information bombardment, some of us seek to limit our exposure to particularly toxic content. But the fact remains that anyone who owns a smartphone (so, 77 percent of millennials) carries around hate speech in his or her pocket. On Twitter, for example, there was a massive rise in hate speech during last year’s presidential election — including 2.6 million tweets with anti-Semitic language, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

If you grew up before the rise of smartphones, and certainly if you grew up before the rise of the internet, this can be a hard perspective to understand. Older Americans are accustomed to a world in which someone who is denied the chance to speak in front of a physical audience is truly silenced and denied a platform. This was the case in, say, 1988, when Cruz enrolled as an undergraduate at Princeton University.

But it’s an essential perspective to understand if one is to avoid succumbing to free-speech hysteria. In a drought of free speech, it makes sense to preserve it wherever possible. But in today’s period of abundance, it’s not unreasonable to apply a filter.

Groves is a philosophy junior from Dallas.