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Some students tolerate too much intolerance

By Clarence Page, Tribune Content Agency on

If they disagree with what you say, about half of America's college students believe they have right to prevent you from saying it.

That's just one of the eye-opening, jaw-dropping findings in a stunning new survey conducted by John Villasenor, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a public policy professor at the University of California at Los Angeles.

The survey in late August of 1,500 undergraduate students at four-year colleges found that 51 percent thought it was just fine for a student group to loudly and repeatedly disrupt a "very controversial speaker" who is "known for making offensive and hurtful statements" so the audience cannot hear him or her.

And 19 percent thought it was OK to use violence to shut down an offensive speaker. You will recognize those scenarios if you've paid much attention to what's been happening on campuses like Yale, Berkeley, Middlebury and Claremont McKenna, among others, in recent years.

Indeed, my conservative critics may be tickled to hear that I, too, received a taste of this bitter medicine at the University of North Carolina last year, where the Black Student Union disrupted and delayed the town hall on race relations that I was leading in order to read off a list of grievances and demands.

I was only annoyed that, after reading their demands, they ignored my invitation to stick around and talk about their issues. Their leaders were more interested in holding a news conference outside. Too bad. After all that the civil rights movement sacrificed to enable African-Americans to get a good education, it brings out my inner grouch to see today's youngsters waste such opportunities.

But wait, as the late-night TV pitchman says, there's more. Villasenor's survey reveals that 40 percent of students said the First Amendment doesn't protect hate speech.

That's wrong, children. The First Amendment is grounded in the idea that audiences should have the right to decide what speech is acceptable or not. The best response to "hate speech" or any other objectionable speech, the old saying goes, is more speech.

Yet I am disturbed and dismayed to find in these supposedly enlightened times that such large numbers of students have not learned to appreciate those distinctions.

The Brookings survey is only the latest in a trend of such survey findings. For example, a 2016 Gallup poll found that a healthy 78 percent of students wanted an "open environment" that allows offensive speech, 69 percent also believed universities should restrict speech that was "intentionally offensive" to certain groups.

And a Pew Research Center survey two years ago found today's millennials are "far more likely" than older generations to say the government should be able to prevent people from saying offensive statements about minority groups.

Having talked to a number of young people about such matters in recent years, I am presuming the students mean well. They don't want to see anyone's feelings hurt. That position has merit but also can be dangerous, depending on how it is applied. Preemptive censorship of people who just might say something that's going to offend someone, rather than encouraging a free flow of ideas between the speaker and the audience, is a peculiarly anti-intellectual position for our institutions of higher learning to take.

Instead, I have been happy to see the rise of pushback from administrators at the University of Chicago and other institutions who have announced that, contrary to a popular belief among some students, they will not be providing "safe spaces" from a vigorous exchange of ideas.

Since 37 percent of American adults could not name any of the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment, according to a University of Pennsylvania Annenberg Public Policy Center survey this year, I don't blame students for their ignorance. The antidote to ignorance is education. Students should be exposed to more ideas, not less, and encouraged to arm themselves with knowledge so they can defend those ideas. Peacefully.

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(E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.)

(c) 2017 CLARENCE PAGE DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.
 

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