|Dissenters and other free thinkers be warned — college campuses are no longer safe spaces for you.
Last month, one of America’s most prestigious graduate schools, Stanford Law School, made headlines after its diversity dean — Tirian Steinbach — participated in a protest disrupting a speech by Fifth Circuit appellate judge Kyle Duncan, a President Donald Trump appointee. Steinbach accused Duncan of causing harm, saying his conservative positions threatened the rights of LGBTQ people, immigrants, Black voters, women and others. In response, the university put Steinbach on leave and required students to attend a training on “freedom of speech and the norms of the legal profession.”
Respectfully protesting a speaker’s talk and physically interrupting it are two completely different things. Universities are experiencing more of the latter, particularly toward conservative speakers.
This troubling, longstanding trend is not contained within Stanford. On campuses throughout the country, students have endured absurd regulations like “free speech zones,” bias reporting systems and trigger warnings — none of which promote or protect First Amendment rights.
Rather than being havens of free thought and constructive, diverse dialogue — much less truth seeking — colleges are now centers of homogenous groupthink, where conformity to the ever-changing, prevailing groupthink of the day is considered virtuous. Today, nearly two-thirds of students have expressed worry about damaging their reputation because of someone misunderstanding what they have said or done; yet these worries have fallen on deaf ears, as college administrators seem more concerned with preventing discourse it deems “problematic” or uncomfortable for certain students.
However, lawmakers on the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee are working to buck the trend in Connecticut, introducing a new bill that will require public institutions of higher learning to adopt a coherent freedom of speech policy by January 1, 2024. Unfortunately, the state’s flagship university, the University of Connecticut (UConn), has deemed this policy unnecessary, while conveniently neglecting its mediocre track record in the area of free speech, ranking 105 — out of the 203 schools surveyed — in the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s (FIRE) annual “College Free Speech Ranking” report.
This begs a host of questions: What could be devised to entice UConn to adopt a policy that quells the concerns of free speech champions? Have other public universities successfully instituted policies with a constitutional approach to free speech?
Instances of Censorship on UConn’s Campus
Free speech advocates at UConn feel alienated from their less tolerant peers. A member of the group Students for Liberty, an international libertarian non-profit organization that supports freedom of speech on college campus, received threats for suggesting a pro-free speech symposium on campus. Their proposed statement on freedom of speech and expression was based on the reputable Chicago Statement — a free speech policy statement created by the Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago in 2014.
Adopted by over 80 colleges, the statement has been endorsed by advocacy groups like FIRE and the Academic Freedom Alliance. Furthermore, the statement reads that “exceptions to the general principle of freedom of expression” may include restrictions on “expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University. In addition, the University may reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University.”
The current free speech statement from UConn employs language similar to the Chicago Statement; however, the University of Chicago practices what it preaches, claiming the top spot in FIRE’s rankings — while UConn drastically falls short. Meanwhile, the university has made headlines in the last few years for issues revolving around free speech — primarily with regard to how it has handled unorthodox speakers, and its controversial prohibition on “hate speech.”
In 2017, a conservative commentator from the right-wing blog Gateway Pundit, Lucian Wintrich, was arrested after giving a speech sponsored by UConn’s College Republicans. The title of the speech was “It’s OK to be White.” The event descended into chaos after a female audience member approached Wintrich at the podium and grabbed his speech. Wintrich ran after her to retrieve his papers. A scuffle ensued, and Wintrich was arrested for breach of peace. Moreover, the College Republicans claimed that the event’s promotional posters were vandalized or outright torn down.
As provocative as Wintrich’s speech might have been, he was well within his rights to deliver it. The hostile backlash that transpired is less indicative of UConn’s free speech policies than the university’s lack of oversight and security when a controversial speaker comes to campus. Speakers should be secure on campus, and while counter-protests are acceptable, destroying opposing group’s flyers or inciting physical confrontations cannot be tolerated. The response to Wintrich’s speech is an example of why many conservative students feel unwelcome and unsafe when organizing events. Fortunately, the new proposed bill has a section devoted to making resources available for protecting the safety and freedom of expression of any speaker invited on campus.
Yet the Wintrich incident is merely the beginning of UConn’s free speech woes.
Its hostility towards conservative speakers was also on display during its handling of famed conservative media figure Ben Shapiro’s appearance on campus early in 2018. UConn administrators decided that Shapiro’s lecture would be open to students and faculty but closed to the public. Solely “non-UConn students allowed in would be those who were on a pre-registered list, thereby limiting the number of students and interested citizens from the public who would be able to attend Shapiro’s lecture at UConn, a public, taxpayer-funded institution.” Of course, student safety is one of UConn’s primary concerns, but the level of exclusion imposed for conservative speakers does not mirror that for leftist speakers. For example, Anita Hill, a prominent leftist, spoke on campus in an event advertised as “free and open to the public,” with “No tickets required for entry.”
In contrast,, ahead of Shapiro’s lecture, UConn’s “Chief Diversity Officer” Joelle Murchison sent an email to students, explaining that Shapiro’s rhetoric can be “concerning and even hurtful.” This peculiar warning hampers the free exchange of ideas by preemptively attempting to taint Shapiro’s reputation for students who may be unfamiliar with him and interested in attending his lecture. It’s harmful and undeniably biased against conservative speakers.
In 2019, two UConn students were arrested for using racial slurs while wandering around a parking lot and engaging in a game of sorts in which each participant tried outdoing the other by screaming ludicrously offensive things. Authorities charged them under a 1917 law that makes it a misdemeanor for “any person, who by his advertisement” that “ridicules or holds up to contempt any person or class of persons, on account of the creed, religion, color, denomination, nationality or race of such person or class of persons.” The law has been distorted to target anyone who utters hateful speech. As a state actor, UConn cannot punish students for speech protected by the First Amendment — even hate speech, barring threats or fighting words. Eugene Volokh — the Gary T. Schwartz Distinguished Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law, and one of the nation’s top experts on First Amendment law — filed an amicus brief, advising the court that “advertisement” in the context of the 1917 law does not mean noncommercial speech. This would go a long way in aiding students on campus who have been targeted for making off-color jokes and mocking sensitive subjects.
The incident on UConn’s campus highlights how it does not stringently adhere to the principles set forth documents like the Chicago Statement. Though reckless use of racial epithets or crude language should never be condoned, bad judgment does not eliminate students’ constitutional rights to utter these words.
The new bill calling for an updated, more comprehensive freedom of speech policy more closely aligns with the Chicago Statement than the current free speech statement, particularly with regard to specifying students’ speech rights.. When a school adopts such a policy, it is sending a message to students that allowing speech within the confines of the U.S. Constitution is of the utmost importance. Rather than coddling its students, public universities like UConn should prepare their students for the real world, where uncomfortable ideas and offensive things are encountered daily.
The Effectiveness of the Chicago Statement
Based on FIRE’s observations in 2020, five years after the Chicago Statement’s realization, colleges that have adopted similar free speech policy statements “tend to have more active discourse surrounding freedom of expression on campus.” Five out of the eight adoptions in 2020 were by an institution’s governing board, which is like what the new proposed bill in Connecticut is calling for: that the board of regents sign off on a free speech policy. This is a promising trend, demonstrating to students and concerned faculty that freedom of speech is essential to some of the school’s most accomplished and influential affiliates. Lastly, schools that have adopted and adhered to a proposal like the Chicago Statement have seen a proliferation in events revolving around the idea of free speech. Even if one opposes the Chicago Statement, there is a good chance that students will be free to make their voice heard while engaging in the vigorous debate.
If UConn wants to exhibit a firm commitment to freedom of speech, it should look to having a more coherent freedom of speech policy, such as the one proposed by the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee. This bill, which bears great resemblance to the successful and oft-imitated Chicago Statement, will allow students to feel more comfortable when it comes to organizing events and inviting speakers to campus. A speaker who takes controversial positions should expect counter-protests, but not violence or intimidation. It will allow students to speak freely within the confines of the First Amendment without fear of being arrested. A student who decides to say offensive things should expect backlash and ostracization from his or her peers, but not fear being arrested.
The Future of Free Speech: Colleges are a Breeding Ground for the Next Generation
UConn receives among the highest levels of state government funding of any public university in the nation. As taxpayers who subsidize UConn, we are contributing to the harmful effects of censored speech and lack of diversity of thought on its campus. If we want the next generation to be equipped with critical thinking skills, then we must petition for these institutions to encourage students to engage in thoughtful debate without fear of intimidation or “cancellation.”
If UConn adopts this free speech bill, which mirrors the successful Chicago Statement, it is proving not only to its students, but Connecticut’s citizens that it has a strong desire to prepare its future doctors, lawyers, politicians and other young professionals to confront the uncomfortable realities of the real world, guided by experience that can be accrued on open-minded campuses. If not, institutions of power, like colleges, will perpetuate the cycle of dangerous, unoriginal groupthink.
The consequences could be dire.