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Debating Free Speech on Campus

Free Speech or “Safe” Speech?

In recent weeks, college campuses around the country have experienced major student protests. These students claim that colleges promote hostile environments that harm minority students and hinder their ability to learn. To solve these problems, students have demanded that college administrators and faculty create “safe-spaces” in which offensive or disagreeable speech is prohibited and punished. These demands have sparked debate about the nature of free speech, individual rights, and higher education.

In this eLesson, learn more about the protests at Yale University and the University of Missouri, and explore both sides of the free speech debate. You can also learn more about past Supreme Court cases that have ruled on the right to free speech.

Campus Protest Resources

eLessons on Campus Speech and Offensive Speech

Discussion Questions and Possible Activities

  • On the board, write “Should offensive speech be banned?” Conduct an anonymous poll by distributing slips of paper to students. Ask them to write yes, no, or maybe.  Have them place their votes in a basket or hat so that they cannot change their answers. Count the votes and write the results on the board.
  • Lead a class discussion on the nature of free speech. Ask students to define what they believe free speech is. Are there limits to free speech, and if so, what are those limits?
  • Ask students to define, in their own terms, offensive speech. Is there such a thing as offensive speech? Who do they believe should determine what is and is not offensive?
  • After explaining the ongoing campus protests against free speech and the leading arguments on all sides of the debate, ask students for their opinions. Do they agree with the college protesters that offensive speech ought to be prohibited and punished? Why or why not?
  • Encourage students who voted “yes” in the poll to explain why they believe offensive speech should be banned. Ask those who voted “no” why they think speech should not be restricted. Encourage students who voted “maybe” to explain their vote.
  • More questions for students to consider include:
    • Do you think limiting free speech inhibits the free exchange of ideas?
    • Is there a time, place, or context in which unlimited free speech is acceptable?
    • Should some groups of people have more free speech than others?
    • What does the First Amendment say about the freedom of speech? Why do students think that the Framers of the Constitution included this as an essential right?
  • Conduct a final anonymous poll at the end of the lesson and class discussion. Write the votes on the board next to the original votes.  Did the vote count change? Ask if any students would be willing to share if they changed their vote, and what arguments persuaded them to do so.