Q: In one of your columns a while ago, you talked about free speech and the importance of listening to others. I’ve been having a lot of disagreements lately with my daughter, a college freshman, who demands that I listen respectfully to everything she says, but interrupts and completely dismisses anything I say that she disagrees with — and she frequently accuses me of being racist or homophobic or something else. I want my daughter to feel comfortable standing up for her views, but how can I teach her to be more respectful of mine and others’?
A: You’ve hit upon what I see as one of the biggest challenges we as a society are facing today: the unfortunate tendency of a lot of people to demand that others respect their views but feel entitled to lash out or shut down anyone who disagrees. At the core of the problem is a fundamental misunderstanding of what free speech is and what it’s not. So let’s start there. The First Amendment, among other things, clearly states that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” That’s pretty broad — and deliberately so. And the Supreme Court has made it very clear that nearly any kind of speech — especially what we often think of as “hate speech” — is protected unless it specifically incites violence or illegal acts. In other words, it’s precisely the things that we don’t want to hear that are protected.
College campuses used to be places where students could be exposed to a variety of points of view, where they honed their arguments and, at least occasionally, where they learned something that changed their thinking. Sadly, those days are gone. One recent study of faculty in economics, history, journalism/communications, law, and psychology at 40 leading U.S. universities around the country found that registered Democrats outnumbered registered Republicans by a ratio of 11.5 to 1.
As a result, instead of being places where students and faculty can enjoy freedom of speech, college campuses have become places where students and faculty now enjoy freedom from speech. And rather than engage in civil discussions, too many people rush to label anyone they disagree with as racist, homophobic, xenophobic, transphobic, or any other discussion-stopping smear they can come up with.
Today, nearly 90% of American colleges “maintain policies that restrict — or too easily could restrict — student and faculty expression,” according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (www.thefire.org). It’s no surprise then, that speakers and guest lecturers who express conservative views are routinely shouted down, intimidated by students and faculty who don’t agree with them, or are simply “disinvited.”
Here’s my bottom line: While it’s important to encourage young people to think critically and express their opinions, it’s just as important to encourage them to listen attentively and respect other people’s opinions — especially the ones they disagree with.