College Kids Don’t Need Protection From Free Speech, They Need to Man Up


Apologies to any college students who had to read the term “man up” without a trigger warning, as Eric Posner’s recent Slate Piece informs that modern students are children who need to be protected against such hate speech. As Posner puts it, Universities are right to teach college students as if they were kindergartners:

They think universities are treating students like children. And they are right. But they have also not considered that the justification for these policies may lie hidden in plain sight: that students are children. Not in terms of age, but in terms of maturity. Even in college, they must be protected like children while being prepared to be adults.

While there is no doubt colleges have a duty to protect its students, they need to protect them from things like robberies, falling of balconies and chlamydia. College kids are children in the sense that they are always stumbling around drunk, trying to plug every sex organ in every hole, and advertising to would-be muggers that their families have $40,000 per year to burn on them majoring in Peruvian studies (hoping to become as learned about Peru as the average Peruvian who makes $6,000 per year). But while we need to protect college students against physical dangers, we don’t need to protect them against ideas. If a student is “offended” by someone else opposing gay marriage, which 4 in 10 Americans oppose to this day, that person does not need a safe space, they need tougher skin.

But after Posner states the need to keep that skin baby soft, he goes on to make the seemingly reasonable point that college classes should be about learning, not free speech:

Teaching is tricky. Everyone understands that a class is a failure if students refuse to learn because they feel bullied or intimidated, or if ideological arguments break out that have nothing to do with understanding an idea. It is the responsibility of the professor to conduct the class in such a way that maximal learning occurs, not maximal speech. That’s why no teacher would permit students to launch into anti-Semitic diatribes in a class about the Holocaust, however sincerely the speaker might think that Jews were responsible for the Holocaust or the Holocaust did not take place. And even a teacher less scrupulous about avoiding offense to gay people would draw a line if a student in the Rawls class wanted to argue that Jim Crow or legalization of pedophilia is entailed by the principles of justice. While advocates of freedom of speech like to claim that falsehoods get squeezed out in the “marketplace of ideas,” in classrooms they just receive an F.

But this is not the issue. No one is arguing that free speech on campus means students should be allowed to take over and teach the class. No one is advocating for calculus recitations to be interrupted by a student standing up and saying, “So this is what we are all thinking about how Canadians smell, but I’m the only one with the guts to say it!”

However, free speech does mean that if the professor chooses to open the class up for discussion, then so long as their views are on topic students shouldn’t have those views shut down as “offensive” – and they certainly shouldn’t be punished for those views.

More importantly, students must be free to express their views outside of class. This is where Posner really misses the mark. He suggests that if students want to engage in free speech, they should take their discussion to a forum off campus like the “town square” – which is obviously where kids hang out in 2015. We all know that 19 year old who is putting on her tri-corner hat and grabbing her bell to run off to the town square to yell, “here ye, here ye, I have an announcement about my feelings on ISIS!”

Posner makes this off campus suggestion as if he did not even read FIRE’s (Foundation For Individual Rights) website that he linked to. The top story is of a University of Tulsa student’s suspension for facebook posts he did not even write. And more to the point, the example cited in Posner’s own post involves a professor being suspended for comments on his personal blog defending free speach.

Posner also makes the dubious claim that speech codes should be allowed because students want them, despite offering no evidence that this is true:

While critics sometimes give the impression that lefty professors and clueless administrators originated the speech and sex codes, the truth is that universities adopted them because that’s what most students want. If students want to learn biology and art history in an environment where they needn’t worry about being offended or raped, why shouldn’t they? As long as universities are free to choose whatever rules they want, students with different views can sort themselves into universities with different rules. Indeed, students who want the greatest speech protections can attend public universities, which (unlike private universities) are governed by the First Amendment.


But this point starts with the central thesis that “being offended” is a legitimate emotion that is worth recognizing in an academic context. If a fundamentalist student wants to learn biology without being offended, should professors be punished for bringing up evolution? Should an art history student get an F on his paper if he addresses the fact that every painting in a museum is showing off women with huge tits and bearded men with semi-erect dicks? Just because these children want to stay children and don’t want to hear “bad things”, doesn’t mean we should let the university put ear muffs on them every time someone curses or says something they disagree with. I’m sure if we left it up to the free market, students would want classes held in bouncy castles and everyone would get A’s so long as they remembered to take off their shoes, but we don’t bend towards those student wishes.


Also curious is if there really is greater freedom at public universities. A quick look at FIRE’s website shows public schools are no better at protecting free speech. From the University of Tulsa example above, to Cal-State busting a sorority for hosting “Taco Tuesday”, to a University of Oregon student garnering harassment charges for yelling “I hit it first,” public universities are by no means a safe place to say anything remotely offensive. You’re at risk of being cited if you do anything other than sit in a multi-racial circle of non-judgment singing “Kumbaya” – and even then you may be charged with cultural appropriation for being insensitive to whatever the hell region the word Kumbaya came from.

But the biggest flaw in Posner’s reasoning is that he fails to realize that even if college kids are children, college is exactly the place they should learn to express themselves freely while also learning to deal with those who have opposing views. If not college, where will kids learn this? Does Posner really think that corporate America is the place for a free flow and exchange of ideas? Let’s watch the results as a kid enter his first week as an intern at an insurance company and posts up by the water cooler – asking people if they think transgenders have a moral duty to inform their sexual partners of their genitalia.

That’s why college must be the place to teach students that even if someone else’s views offend them, that person has the right to those views. Since Posner’s piece was published, another gunman shot and murdered someone at a free speech convention because they were upset over a cartoon. This is why it doesn’t matter how immature our students are –  we should still be teaching them that being offended is a problem that isn’t worth anything more than an eye roll at any age.


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