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Free Speech, Hate Speech, Snowflakes, and Student Activism:
Institutional Accountability

Profile Pic - Banks.png

Skidmore College

LIKE MANY HIGHER EDUCATION ADMINISTRATORS AND FACULTY, I have been troubled by narratives that claim college and university students are “snowflakes”- a derogatory term used to indicate that students are oversensitive and not able to engage with people, ideals, images, information, and ideologies that are different from their own particularly when these ideas challenge their own identity- based experiences or make them feel “uncomfortable.


The term is hurled at students for all kinds of reasons. For example, students calling for the removal of statues and other historical and modern-day artifacts from their campuses that they believe reinforce racism and celebrate historical atrocities are often called “snowflakes.” Students who ask a professor to give them notice if graphically violent or sexually explicit content will be shown or covered in class are called ‘snowflakes”.  Those wedded to this term also use student protest of “controversial” speakers as evidence that students are “snowflakes”. While there have been a few public cases exploited by the right and the media to make this case I maintain that labeling college students and their protests in this way is a limited and inaccurate generalization. 


Yes, recent surveys show that many college students believe that free speech should be suppressed if it is hate speech.  Instead of accepting this finding as evidence of fragility or a victim complex, I agree with Professor Sigal Ben Porath, scholar and author of Free Speech on Campus, who when speaking about the students at Middlebury who engaged in protest to stop Charles Murray from speaking at their school stated:


“portraying protesting students as vulnerable or refusing to think seems simplistic and unfair. Their rejection of Murray’s views (again, putting aside the violence, which should be condemned) is an effort to expand the democratic reach of free speech to groups they see as harmed and silenced, not an effort to protect themselves with a liberal cocoon.”


 On its face, the political arguments about freedom of expression -both “the right to say whatever I want” and the belief that colleges and universities are trying to suppress free speech- it would appear (or one could assume) that we have eradicated racism, sexism, homophobia and the like. We know that this is not true. A white person, wearing blackface as part of a costume for Halloween may be freedom of expression but it does not erase the historical context and modern-day impact and implications of this display. 


When people want to exercise the right to free speech but not accept the responsibility or consequences that come with that right and when they deny the significant impact some speech, like hate speech, has on others, and then actively work to silence voices that oppose their words and behavior you can understand why students and others, committed to equity and inclusion protest. It is not because they are snowflakes.


The current discourse refuses to recognize that language is connected to power and that those with the most power are generally allowed freedom of speech with little to no consequence even when the speech is hateful and abusive. This stance fails to acknowledge that people are differently impacted by hate speech; some are empowered, some are indifferent, and some are terrorized. When college students exercise their right to free speech and publicly challenge racism, they are often subject to hateful and violent vitriol from the very groups and individuals who claim to support freedom of expression.


In a conversation about free speech at Skidmore a Black student stated “If someone is speaking hateful things against African American Students or Latinx students, I’m not going to say, let’s sit and have a dialogue. I don’t want to do that. But there are other people who can step in a do that because it affects them differently”. This student is exercising her agency to make decisions about how to participate and respond to these incidents. She is not a snowflake.


On the other hand, students, and all campus constituents need to understand that even hateful and discriminatory expressions are protected by the First Amendment. And that not disinviting a speaker doesn’t mean the institution support the speaker’s views. At one school, students were angry that a staff member had a confederate flag in their personal vehicle. At another, a student had a Pepe the Frog poster (a meme that has been appropriated as a symbol of the alt right) hanging in a residence hall window.  In both cases there were calls for expulsion or firing. In each case a conversation was had with the individual. In one case the item was removed. In another it was not.


What becomes important is helping students, faculty and staff on every side of the political spectrum understand the first amendment AND that free expression comes with responsibility. There are consequences, intended and unintended that need to be navigated if we are truly committed to both the first amendment and equity and inclusion. 


This level of education takes commitment and preparation and challenges occur when colleges and universities:


  • are unclear about values and expectations. When, for example they have no policies in place and no clear communication of standards and expectations.


  • are unprepared, always reacting, and disorganized with no point person(s) and no clearly assigned roles and responsibilities and when they neglect to engage the entire community.


  • are unprepared to recognize and mitigate the impact of outside agitators and influencers and of social media on campus free speech and activism.


Questions that can guide this discussion include:


  • What factors cause challenges to free speech, equity, and activism?


  • How do we name and address hate speech in conversations about free speech?


  • What do we do when free speech challenges come outside agitators, from social media?


  • How do institutions prepare for education and activism related to free speech?


Students care deeply about what is happening in the world and on college and university campuses and they are willing to take on tough situations. Understandably some college students may not possess the full complement of skills or strategies necessary to successfully move this agenda forward. Even so, they are willing to courageously engage with and effectively challenge systems of power—institutions, faculty, staff, administrators, and each other- in difficult dialogues and exchanges in an effort to improve their communities. Our institutions, WE owe them education, knowledge, gratitude, and affirmation.

Cerri Banks will appear on the panel, "Student Speech and Administrative Responses," at the Campus Free Speech Battles Conference on September 24, 5:00-6:30 pm.

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