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College Students Clash Repeatedly Over Free Speech Issues


If we look back on 2017, we saw this debate on many college campuses over what constitutes free speech, and when it veers into hate speech, and when it should be silenced. Our co-host, Rachel Martin, recently sat down with Suzanne Nossel of PEN America. That's a free speech advocacy group. And they talked about how the University of California at Berkeley dealt with the far-right activist Milo Yiannopoulos earlier this year.

SUZANNE NOSSEL: Someone like Milo Yiannopoulos styles himself as a standard bearer for free speech. I think it's highly problematic that you have a provocateur who's really interested in just instigating, angering and ostracizing students. That said, the thing Milo Yiannopoulos wants more than anything else is to be shut down. If Berkeley says your event is canceled, he then goes - he can sue Berkeley. When people like that have sued campuses, they've won if it's a public university on First Amendment grounds.

He can go and grandstand and fundraise and galavant around the country saying University of California, Berkeley, shut me down. And he did that. You know, he then tried a reprise, to come back in September. And the campus, I think, took exactly the right posture, which was to say, you can come here. We'll provide security at great expense to us. And you know what? The whole thing fizzled out.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: So you're essentially advocating a sort of capitalist solution to this, that you have to let the actual marketplace decide. Students themselves issue a verdict about whether or not they want Milo to come or not by showing up or not.

NOSSEL: Yeah. I mean, on a campus where you have liberal rules, where any student group or any department is allowed to invite a speaker, for the administration to then step in and say this particular speaker is out of bounds, I think, is problematic. They should also speak out. I mean, I don't think it's just purely standing back and letting the marketplace resolve it. I think the university has a voice in this as well. Our universities stand for certain ideals and principles. So they need to speak out on behalf of those values.

I think the university that did it well was the University of Florida. When Richard Spencer came, they scheduled it at the outer limits of the campus. They also mounted a campaign saying, you know, these are not the values that we stand for. And he got through with it, but he didn't get that much publicity. He wasn't able to grandstand. And I think eventually this will run its course if campuses handle it in that way.

MARTIN: We have this collective reverence for the First Amendment, but I wonder if you think it is time to take stock of the fact that it was written exclusively by white men at a time when African-Americans were only considered to be three-fifths of a human being.

NOSSEL: You know, it's interesting because at one of the meetings that we had with student leaders, an African-American student was sort of reminded of the role of the First Amendment by a First Amendment legal scholar. And her response was the First Amendment wasn't written for me. And what she meant by that was both that when the First Amendment was written, her forebearers would've been considered three-fifths of a person, and also that the way she sees the First Amendment being invoked on campus is to protect slurs and other things that seem bent on undercutting her presence as a student.

And it's also the case that First Amendment protections and freedom of speech have been essential to every single civil rights and social justice struggle that has been waged in this country, whether it's the battle for women's rights or rights for African-Americans or immigrants' rights. You could not wage those fights if you were not protected in being able to speak out to challenge authority.

You know, that said, there are many controversies on campus that the First Amendment really doesn't help to answer. In many cases, we see groups of students trying to shut down the speech of others. So this is not the government or even the university administration acting, but it's rather student versus student.

MARTIN: Are college campuses going to remain the front lines of the free speech debate in this country going forward into 2018?

NOSSEL: You know, I think they will. I mean, you have generational attitudes that are different and expectations. There are demands for levels of conscientiousness in language that, you know, adults - people over 40 - can kind of scoff at. And yet to students, you know, these seem very real. They're much more accustomed to growing up in diverse environments. Ways of characterizing people that were perfectly acceptable a couple of decades ago, you know, sound really jarring and really rankle this generation. So I think they are pushing the boundaries. So I don't expect this to die down.

MARTIN: Suzanne Nossel is the executive director of PEN America. Suzanne, thanks so much for talking with us.

NOSSEL: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.