Is Free Speech Being Curtailed at American University Campuses? A New Report Seeks to Find Out

A new report has been released by PEN America called And Campus For All: Diversity, Inclusion, and Freedom of Speech at U.S. Universities.

PEN America (“PEN” is not an acronym) is an organization that defines its purpose as the following:

“PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. PEN America’s work centers on freedom of speech and a profound commitment to open intellectual inquiry.”

The aim of the report is to ascertain whether the recent trend at American universities for “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and fighting against “microaggressions,” is in fact a subtly-veiled encroachment on students’ freedom of speech.

The report also seeks to establish whether students and university bodies that hold politically incorrect, “hurtful,” or controversial viewpoints are being silenced and/or bullied by fellow students or faculty members. Moreover, the report seeks to examine the recent trend of banning/disinviting certain speakers from university campuses who hold these types of views that are deemed unsavory by certain portions of the student body.

It is first worth defining, to those who are unaware, what exactly “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and “microagressions,” are. It would probably be most useful to examine each of these one by one. We will then look into the phenomena of silencing certain students and banning/disinviting speakers whose viewpoints do not align with (what is at least perceived tobe) the mainstream.

Safe Spaces

The Oxford dictionary defines “safe spaces,” as: 

“A place or environment in which a person or category of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm.” 

As but one example of this phenomenon, the PEN study notes:

“On some campuses, scholars and speakers who question or deny the existence of rape culture have stirred so much opprobrium that their perspective has become taboo. When Wendy McElroy, a scholar at the Independent Institute who is criticalof the concept of rape culture, was scheduled to take partin a debate at Brown, her impending presence sparked anuproar… Rather than simply let the debate play out, Brown’s president, Christina Paxson, sent a campus-wide email rebutting McElroy’s views  and scheduled a program entitled “The Research on Rape Culture” at the same time as the… debate.”

Even more startling is the fact that at this “Research on Rape Culture” counter-event, students were thoroughly infantilized to caricaturial proportions. Indeed it seems that the only things missing in this shocking arrangement were the cuddly-wuddly teddy bears:

“The room was equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh,” and other accoutrements of childhood, offering those attending the debate a retreat for when they got too distressed to keep listening.”

Whether one agrees with the creation of safe spaces or not, any reasonable person must surely find such a situation to be exceedingly fatuous.  

Students demonstrate against "rape culture" on a university campus

Students demonstrate against "rape culture" on a university campus

Perhaps the most famous case of students demanding “safe spaces,” was in 2015 during the Yale Halloween costume controversy. Students at Yale had been petitioning for the banning of Halloween costumes deemed to be ‘offensive’ or ‘culturally insensitive’. One can only imagine that by this they meant banning costumes depicting Native Americans, Cowboys, Christopher Columbus, Catholic priests, Donald Trump, and so on.

In response to the ordeal, Erika Christakis, a member of the Yale faculty, sent out an email to students living in her residence hall: 

“Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition.” 
People sometimes wear culturally-insensitive Halloween costumes

People sometimes wear culturally-insensitive Halloween costumes

Christakis’s husband, Nicholas, who defended his wife’s statement, was surrounded by a group of students belonging to “Generation Snowflake,” on the Yale campus in the ensuing firestorm. The gathering, which was captured on video, was led by one female student in particular, who yelled and swore at the bamboozled Nicholas Christakis for not making her feel at “home,” and making her feel like she was no longer in a, “safe space.” 

Erika Christakis has since resigned from Yale University, while her husband had to take a one-year sabbatical. Only time will tell whether this sabbatical will evolve into a “permanent vacation,” so to speak.   

Tigger Warnings

Trigger warnings are defined in a December 2015 report called What’s All This About Trigger Warnings? as:

“Written warnings to alert students in advance that material assigned in a course might be upsetting or offensive. Originally intended to warn students about graphic descriptions of sexual assault that it was thought might trigger post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in some students, more recently trigger warnings have come to encompass materials touching on a wide range of potentially sensitive subjects, including race, sexual orientation, disability, colonialism, torture, and other topics. In many cases, the request for trigger warnings comes from students themselves.”

It is important to note here that classic works of the western canon by Shakespeare, Homer, and Plato are all fair game for these trigger warnings. Students are sometimes able to request to opt-outs for reading such works lest they feel they might be ‘triggered’ by doing so.

Trigger warnings are today included on university syllabi quite frequently, as a recent NPR study has shown:  

Students seem to be quite alright with this. According to a 2015 study by McLaughlin Associates, 63% of students favor having trigger warnings, while only 23% oppose them.


The PEN study borrows a definition of “microaggressions” from a 2007 paper by research psychologist Derald Wing Sue:

“Microaggressions are the brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual-orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group.”

Theoretical examples of “microaggressions” (dreamt up by yours truly) might include:

  • A man asking a non-heterosexual woman out on a date on the assumption that she is not gay.
  • A caucasian American person asking an American-born person of Chinese descent, “where they come from.”
  • At night, a white person crossing to the other side of the street when a black man starts to walk in his/her direction.

But microaggressions are of course not limited to my own very creative mind. In universities, examples of microagressions are sometimes clearly spelt out. The PEN report cites a June 2015 article by UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh in which he lists some of the statements that the University of California deems to be “microaggressions”:

  • “America is the land of opportunity.”
  • “Everyone can succeed in this society, if they work hard enough.”
  • “Affirmative action is racist.”

Policing of “Politically Incorrect” IdeasThere seems to be a very troubling existence of “thought policing” or intolerance of views that dissent from the campus orthodoxy. 

The PEN report cites the following statistics from the 2015 McLaughlin study regarding the policing of speech on university campuses:

“Approximately half of those surveyed say that they have had the experience of being “intimidated’ when sharing views and opinions that differed from those of their professors or instructors. Sixty-three percent of those surveyed think that “political correctness” on campuses is a problem.” 

As a vivid example of this lexical sanitizing:

“In 2016 both Harvard and Yale replaced the title “master,” which had been used to refer to heads of residence halls and residential colleges, with, respectively, “faculty dean” and “head of college,” dissociating themselves from a term that was once used by slaves to refer to their owners.”

Another example of this phenomenon is seen below:

“In October 2015, the student government of Wesleyan University in Connecticut threatened to cut the Wesleyan Argus student newspaper’s funding in half after it published a student op-ed criticizing the tactics of the Black Lives Matter movement, and eventually did vote to reduce the paper's work-study stipends and redirect funds to other campus publications deemed to represent more diverse points of view.”

(Points to you if you grasped the immense irony in Wesleyan University’s use of the word, “diverse.”)

…And of course, no discussion of political incorrectness can ever be complete without mention of Donald Trump:

“In March 2016 at Emory University, messages supportive of presidential candidate Donald Trump were written in chalk on campus walkways. Protests ensued, including from students who said that the pro-Trump messages made them feel unsafe—or even constituted a direct threat to their safety—due to Trump’s views about racial minorities, immigrants, and Muslims. The university administration came out in support of the protests”  

But the toxic odor associated with Trump extends far beyond leafy Atlanta suburbs: 

“When Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” was posted on the Skidmore College campus, the matter was referred to the college’s Bias Response Group, which found that postings in the classrooms of female faculty of color constituted “racialized, targeted attacks.” The finding raised questions about whether a student Trump supporter might be considered guilty of a racist attack for hanging a major-party presidential campaign poster in a dorm room shared with other students whose race or ethnicity has been targeted by the Trump campaign.”

Given that Trump is, as of today, polling at around 43%, it appears that 43% of American voters’ views are completely unwelcome on certain university campuses.

Supporting Donald Trump is a big "no-no" on some university campuses today

Supporting Donald Trump is a big "no-no" on some university campuses today

Banning Speakers from University Campuses

Lastly, certain speakers who were initially invited to speak at American university campuses have been ‘uninvited’ due to mass student protests:

In one of the more publicized instances of this trend, Brandeis University withdrew its offer of an honorary degree and speaking opportunity to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who:

“Once called [Islam] “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death.” The rescinded invitation came in response to protests involving not only students but also leading national Muslim American organizations that described Hirsi Ali, who is of Muslim heritage, as a “notorious Islamophobe.”  In the face of the outcry, Brandeis said that it had not properly vetted her writings prior to issuing the invitation and, once it had done so, could not “overlook that certain of her past statements are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.”

The PEN report also notes that the following people were ‘disinvited’ to speak on certain campuses:

  • Ann Coulter, conservative commentator.
  • Hillary Clinton, former US Secretary of State and current presidential candidate
  • Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City.
  • Ray Kelly, former New York City police commissioner.

One can only assume that in the above instances, these speakers were disinvited due to their views and/or past statements that took certain individuals out of their “safe spaces” and potentially “triggered them.”

The PEN view: Free Speech on University Campuses Today

The PEN report concludes the report with the following takeaways: 

“While free speech is alive and well on campus, it is not free from threats, and must be vigilantly guarded if its continued strength is to be assured… PEN America’s view, as of October 2016, is that while the current controversies merit a mention and there have been some troubling incidences of speech curtailed, there is not, as some accounts have suggested, a pervasive “crisis” for free speech on campus.”
“Alongside that is evidence of a passive, tacit indifference to the risk that increased sensitivity to differences and offense—what some call “political correctness”—can bleed into significant levels of self-censorship that suppress dissenting ideas.” 
“While some degree of caution and forethought in speech is healthy, college should be a place where ideas can range free, dissent is welcomed, and settled wisdom is reconsidered.”
“Safe spaces on campus should be entered into voluntarily by students wishing to associate with a certain group, not created or imposed to exclude unwelcome views.”

The Pendulum View: Free Speech on University Campuses Today

President Harry S. Truman was known to quip that, “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” 

I believe that this is the attitude that universities, and societies at large, must take towards the phenomena of “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and, “microaggressions.”

If someone is unable to approach certain subjects without receding into his/her “safe space,” or without being “triggered,” then they have no place at a university, let alone an elite one such as Yale.

This is not to minimize the psychological impact of the trauma that certain people might feel when being exposing to certain topics. I can thoroughly empathize with those whose past phantoms have not fully receded, or may not ever fully recede at all. Indeed, sexual assault, violence, and oppression are weighty affairs that leave indelible marks on the human psyche.

However, there are very legitimate reasons as to why such people do not belong in traditional universities. They should perhaps pursue other pathways to education, or to perhaps isolate themselves from such trauma to the best of their abilities.

For if a certain individual is training to be a doctor but cannot hear about rape, how will he/she be able to give urgent medical care to a patient who has been raped? Would one really want such a doctor to look after someone who has befallen such a tragedy?

If someone is studying law, but cannot hear about slavery, colonialism, or war, how can this individual represent victims of similar injustices in a court of law without being triggered? Would one ever hire such a lawyer to represent them? 

More to the point, life does not offer trigger warnings, nor does it offer safe spaces, save one’s own home- the only place where one can be in total control of everything that is said, heard, or displayed. Often, aggressions in life are not “micro,” at all. They are real, big, nasty aggressions.  

So if one agrees with the premise that the primary purpose of university is to equip one for life, then one must be against trigger warnings and safe spaces for the general university population.

We should remember that, in the case of Yale for example, it is one of the most elite universities in the world. It has produced five U.S. Presidents. Imagine if a future President of the United States was unable to read about war, famine, or cultural appropriation without hyperventilating. How would this individual be able to keep us safe from Al Qaeda?

Regarding the banning of certain viewpoints and speakers from university campuses, this is the truly troubling issue regarding the freedom of speech today. For if one is not exposed to any contrary or dissenting viewpoints, one is left mentally enfeebled.  

Even if these contrary viewpoints are categorically stupid, it is still in one’s own interest to engage with them and to defeat them with debate- not with censorship. At the very least, it forces one to rethink one’s own convictions, and to lend these convictions a new depth and lucidity that they previously might not have had had they been left unchallenged.

Lastly, it must be said that most of the problematic phenomena discussed in this post are domains of the modern political left. Leftism was traditionally the political movement in favor of free thought, intellectual inquiry, and challenges to authority. That this is no longer the case is a remarkable intellectual u-turn.

One can only hope that this is a temporary illiberal detour, rather than a permanent change of course for the left. Certainly it will become the latter if left unchallenged.