Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill writes for the Martin Center about students’ impressions of free speech at Duke.
Is support among Duke students for free expression and the First Amendment eroding?
Back in October, I had my chance to find out. Sixty freshmen students came for a conversation on those topics. Leading the conversation were Duke Professor of Law H. Jefferson Powell, Duke First Amendment Clinic Supervising Attorney Nicole Ligon, and me. The students probed the ways in which free speech and the First Amendment shaped their lives. Topics included the role of social media, whether the protections of the First Amendment should apply to private universities as much as public ones, and the importance of viewpoint diversity.
The conversation became especially intense when one student asked, shouldn’t we restrict free speech when we’re seeing hate-driven violence? That question reaches the core of today’s debates about campus free expression. Across American higher education, many today doubt that campuses can be safe, diverse, and inclusive while also remaining wide open to speech and expression.
First Amendment experts Powell and Ligon made the case that attempts to regulate speech frequently do more harm than good. Campus provocateurs often arrive with the intention of generating a spectacle rather than articulating a defensible argument. Silencing them lends credence to their claim of being targeted by crazed protesters for the truth they might speak. But allowing the most outrageous speaker to face questions—or an empty room—shows their claims of being conspired against to be meritless and denies them a propaganda victory. The most effective response to the vilest speech, they argued, is not to give such speakers the spectacle they desire.
On the other hand, speech codes meant to exclude hateful speech often end up ruling as out of bounds speech that merits thoughtful engagement.