Today, college campuses have become hotbeds for debate over issues of racism, sexism and basically any other "ism" you could think of. As students attempt to make their universities more attuned to the needs and safety of different groups on campus, a kind of divide has opened up between campus activists and more old-school beneficiaries of the status quo—and it seems that the line between what's considered freedom of speech and what's considered offensive is getting thinner everyday. Part of PEN America's new report, "And Campus for All: Diversity, Inclusion, and Freedom of Speech at U.S. Universities," explores how college campuses are attempting to reconcile the sensitivities of students with the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech.
The report self-describes itself as "an investigation into the apparent chasm that has opened up between student activists and free speech advocates." Student activists are using their freedom of speech to protest others whom they perceive as using their free speech in the wrong way—to spew offenses and harm others. The study looks into how concepts commonly thrown around on any college campus, such as "safe spaces," "trigger warnings" and "microagressions," could conflict with principles of freedom of speech.
Three specific case studies were used to try and illuminate the issue: a conflict over cultural appropriation at Yale, an Israelie/Palestine debate at UCLA and a Title IX dispute at Northwestern. The three cases cover three distinct issues, and the report attempts to determine whether or not the outcomes hindered free speech.
The investigation finds that some students do see freedom of speech as a tool that allows students to behave or talk offensively. In the end, though, the report recognizes that "offensiveness" is subjective, and limiting freedom of speech based on something that varies from person to person can be a dangerous threat to students' basic rights. The report concludes with PEN America's "Principles on Campus Free Speech." While the authors of the report sympathize with those are affected by some negative uses of freedom of speech, PEN pragmatically admits that "maintaining campus as an open space requires accepting that certain offenses will occur; in no community or home is everyone comfortable all the time." Ultimately, the reports asserts that "free speech is alive and well on campus" but cautions that it "must be vigilantly guarded if its continued strength is to be assured."