On September 20th, 2017, the Claremont Independent published a piece that was titled “The Dark Underbelly of Claremont’s Meme Culture.” The article criticized the meme group “U PC BREAUX” for having “[c]ommon themes [...] includ[ing] mocking feminists, those who reject the gender binary, making racist jokes, making light of incidents in which deaths occur, and belittling safe spaces.” (Claremont Independent). Pomona College recently established an Incident Response Team to investigate, and an official email came out on October 3rd, 2017 that “the memes were bias-related and protected speech.”John Church discusses the important issue of protecting free speech and diversity of ideas by oxymoronically implementing certain restrictions and expectations for general discourse within the college. Jokes, Memes, and Privacy Within Social Media
ARGUMENT (Declared Bias: Right Libertarian)
In the wake of the “U PC BREAUX?” incident, the question of free speech on college campuses has gone from being an interesting, albeit distant political issue to one which could possibly affect us for the rest of our time in Claremont. The Claremont colleges are suddenly faced with a menacing question: just how far are we willing to protect free speech? While it is easy to make grand arguments defending the inherent rights of individuals to free speech, we must face the fact that certain types of free speech, such as the grotesque words displayed in the recent meme group, serve more to silence dialogue than to enhance it. It is our moral imperative to protect the diversity of dialogues on campus, while simultaneously upholding certain standards of discourse. In order to protect dialogue, a college is justified in setting up certain standards for civil public discourse while simultaneously protecting a diverse array of ideas. We must be careful, however, that they do not take this power too far.
A diversity of opinion itself is something that ought to be sought after. No matter how much we disagree with a certain type of opinion, these thoughts should still be allowed on college campuses. If we wish to maintain a diverse and free marketplace of ideas, then we cannot censor any voices; after all, it is the heart of our beliefs as a free nation that people should be free to entertain and to spread any sort of ideas that they have. I could spend pages elaborating on the benefits of varied discourse, but for the sake of brevity, I will assume that the reader agrees that censorship of political opinion is at odds with the ideals of a free society.
However, a problem arises on college campuses when freedom of speech is taken too far. Some types of speech actually limit discourse instead of advancing it. Many proponents of entirely free speech on college campuses claim that they support free speech because they support a diversity of opinions. However, how have racist comments or jokes about rape ever progressed a real discussion? Some types of hateful speech are just that: simplistic insults which offer no argument and never needed to be said. Some are even more sinister. Demeaning certain groups can hinder speech, as these groups may feel unsafe and unable to speak out. As private institutions, the Claremont Colleges have some say in regards to the conduct of their students on campus. For example, few students believe that their freedom of expression is being violated because the colleges require students to wear clothing in class or forbid cursing at professors upon receiving a bad grade. Similarly, the colleges should implement certain basic standards for student conduct in public discourse.
"The colleges should implement certain basic standards for student conduct in public discourse."
Vigilant defenders of our rights will immediately raise an objection to this; if inappropriate comments are able to be censored, what is stopping colleges from taking this power too far and censoring unorthodox opinions? The answer lies in three critical distinctions that limit the reach of a college's moderating power.
First, colleges should only attempt to moderate public discourse, not private. What happens behind the closed doors of a college dorm or in a secret facebook group should be of no concern to the college. Demeaning and hateful speech may silence certain types of discourse, but those affected are able to opt out of private discussions or facebook groups. Additionally, colleges do not have any grounds to police the private lives of its students. Public discussions that happen within a college’s halls are within its jurisdiction. However, the very lives of its students are not.
Second, the limitation on free speech which I am advocating for is, in essence, only a code of conduct for discussion on a college campus. Outside of college, there should be no limit on freedom of speech. The Claremont Colleges are private institutions, which give them the right to dictate how the college is run. A college’s main goal should be to expose its students to a wide variety of challenging ideas in a constructive way. When certain speech gets in the way of that goal, the college can do something about it. To clarify: the government should have absolutely no business policing speech of any kind.
Third, colleges should only be limiting speech that stifles discourse. Any type of political opinion, no matter how abhorrent it may seem to us, must be protected in order to preserve the diversity of ideas on campus. Speech should only be limited when it poses no arguments and has the singular intention of demeaning, silencing, or otherwise harming a group. While we may find certain political views demeaning or otherwise harmful, they must still be protected. If we allow political views to be silenced then who is to determine what is a valid opinion and what is not? According to a recent poll at Brooking University, more than 50% of students believe that shouting down offensive speakers is appropriate. Perhaps more frightening is that one-fifth of students surveyed approved of the use of violence to silence a speaker. While the argument I am posing is mainly concerned with hateful speech, it should be noted that students simply shouting down a speaker are still using speech to silence an idea . Neither making racist comments nor shouting down a speaker is an appropriate action during public discourse on a college campus.
Only speech that does not fall under the protected areas which I have elaborated on above should be discouraged by colleges. Racial slurs, demeaning comments, and loud noise made with the intention of silencing a speaker are examples of what should not be allowed. Unfavorable political views, arguments we disagree with, and ideas that make us uncomfortable are all examples of things that must be protected so long as they are presented in a civil way. Discourse should aim for the exchange of ideas and reasoned discussion instead of what it often becomes when two opposing views meet each other on campus: shouting and insults. Colleges should set up some standards for discourse, but we must be careful that we do not allow colleges to cross the line into policing ideas, not the way they are presented.
While it sounds paradoxical, the best way for us to harbor a diversity of ideas on campus is actually to set some boundaries on how things can be said. The “U PC BREAUX” incident showed just how bad some of the rhetoric on campus could be. While the Facebook group was private, and therefore its members should not be punished, if this type of speech was ever repeated in a classroom or other public setting the students should immediately be disciplined. Further, if a group of students ever tried to shout down a speaker on campus, they should be similarly punished. In order to have constructive discussions on campus and for students to be exposed to different ideas, we must harbor an environment where unorthodox ideas are protected, but speech attempting to silence ideas is rejected.
Sources and Notes