“This is my freedom of speech,” said a California State University-Los Angeles student, as she tore down posters advertising a talk by American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Christina Hoff Sommers.
The student who supposed she was exercising her free speech rights asserted that the posters were offensive. They read: “Why Feminism Went Wrong with Christina Hoff Sommers: Feminism used to demand equality. Now it demands safe spaces (and) trigger warnings and has become hostile to men. Professor Christina Hoff Sommers will explain what happened to feminism and how it can be fixed.”
Some commentators have pointed out that the poster is offensive only in the eyes of extremists. I agree that the poster is inoffensive but think that defense misses the point. Suppose, for argument’s sake, that Sommers has grossly mischaracterized contemporary feminism. Perhaps a mainstream feminist would have good reason to be offended by her assertions, just as a conservative might have good reason to be offended by the mainstream but inaccurate assertion that conservatives are hostile to women. That would be, of course, no justification for tearing down posters or destroying newspapers or otherwise suppressing the speech of others.
Institutions like the University of Chicago have been blasted in some quarters for underscoring their devotion to free speech amid demands for safe spaces and trigger warnings. Critics point out that colleges and universities have always had safe spaces—the meetings of the College Democrats, or the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, or even Young Americans for Freedom, the group that sponsored Sommers’s’ visit—in which students who have something in common can be together and speak freely without worrying about what others will say or think.
That objection, while it usefully complicates the debate over speech on campus, is a dodge. As some longtime observers of the left have noticed, there is a non-trivial part of the left that is demanding not that students have places in which they can enjoy the company of like-minded others, but that the public square be cleansed of speech deemed offensive by people who claim to speak for the oppressed.
At least when it comes to speech, colleges and universities are increasingly recognizing that this movement undermines their missions. They are right to do so.