Yale students agree their campus restricts free speech

A majority of students who attended a debate on free speech at Yale University Tuesday left convinced that First Amendment rights are threatened on college campuses, especially their own.

According to a survey conducted after the debate, 66 percent of audience members agreed with the motion that free speech is threatened on college campuses. A separate survey conducted before the debate showed that only 49 percent agreed with the motion, meaning 17 percent of students who were surveyed changed their minds on the issue during the debate.

The debate, hosted by ABC’s John Donvan, covered a variety of contested topics, including academic freedom for tenured professors and the rise of campus protests.

“[Free speech] has fueled virtually every movement for social change and social justice, including today’s student protest movements, which you might point to as evidence that free speech is thriving on campus. The trouble is that so many of these movements aim to punish and suppress other people’s speech,” said author and lawyer Wendy Kaminer, pointing out that freedom to protest is protected under the same amendment as freedom of speech.

Panelists also touched on a recent phenomenon on college campuses in which conservative speakers are discouraged and even uninvited from speaking on campus. Most notably, conservative political pundits Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos, both on college speaking tours, are routinely greeted with swarms of angry student protesters.

[RELATED: Anti-Shapiro protesters at CSULA say ‘hate speech’ should not be allowed on campus]

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The panelists discussed the issue using an example from last September when Yale student protesters interrupted former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft during an on-campus lecture.

“The idea that he’s not supposed to come is exactly the kind of threat we’re talking about, whether or not it actually happened doesn’t matter,” said John McWhorter, a professor at Columbia University.

“Of course students have a right to say he’s not allowed to come,” Kaminer chimed in. “But to do that shows an intolerance for free speech … and a desire not to hear opposing views.”

Donvan discouraged debaters from discussing last year’s events at Yale when a professor was pushed into resignation for sending out a dissenting letter critical of the university’s attempt to discourage “offensive” Halloween costumes, which sparked several student protests, but the topic naturally came up.

[RELATED: Yale faculty sign letter defending controversial email]

Jason Stanley, a philosophy professor at Yale, argued that student protests are a sign of the vitality of free speech on college campuses.

“The act of protesting is not a denial of free speech, it is the exercising of free speech,” Stanley said. “Free speech is alive and well on university campuses.”

In addition to the Halloween costume incident, Yale had other issues of alleged racism on campus when a fraternity reportedly said it only wanted white girls to attend its parties. McWhorter and Kaminer argued that a fear of sounding racist has hindered the free speech of many students on campus.

“When someone is told they are racist ... in America in 2016,” McWhorter said, “it is practically equivalent to calling them a pedophile.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @AGockowski