Colleges, the First Amendment isn't protection from offensive speech

Colleges, the First Amendment isn't protection from offensive speech
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I’m often asked if there’s a limit to the Listen First practice I promote in hopes of restoring civil discourse. I recommend erring on the side of listening to and seeking to understand another person’s views, no matter how objectionable.

But as the tragedy in Charlottesville illuminated, there are exceptions. As with physical violence, abject racism or anti-Semitism voids the privilege of a Listen First response. Listen First is about improving humanity by restoring civil discourse. We cannot improve humanity if we attack the humanity of our fellow Americans.


That said, we should strive for respect and understanding as we engage alternative ideas. In addition to pursuing the virtue of civil discourse, how can we argue our own views effectively if we have nothing more than an over-simplified straw man understanding of the other side? Too often that’s all we hold because we stubbornly refuse to grapple with inconvenient facts or contrary values.


Former President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonChelsea Clinton: Trump isn't building public confidence in a vaccine Hillary Clinton launching podcast this month GOP brushes back charges of hypocrisy in Supreme Court fight MORE recently said, “One of the things that’s wrong with America today, that bothers me more than anything else about our future, is that we have separated ourselves into like-minded communities… we don’t want to be around very many people who disagree with us… The most important thing is to be humble, to listen, to realize everybody’s got a story.”

Unfortunately, we’re seeing increasing evidence of cowering close-mindedness in the very settings that should best foster intellectual exploration and vigorous debate — college campuses. At Duke University, I was exposed to a myriad of provocative and even offensive perspectives, and I’m better for it. Yet, on campuses across America — which should be bastions of open dialogue and free speech — a new generation of students are self-selecting out of similar mind-widening experiences.

As journalist Fareed Zakaria observes, “American universities today seem committed to every kind of diversity except intellectual diversity.” Dr. Jean M. Twenge, author of iGen, argues that today’s college students are fixated on psychological safety, having grown up in hyper-protected environments and addicted to their devices, uncomfortable with face-to-face confrontation. For this generation of college students, the greatest threats appear in 140 characters or less. Dr. Twenge’s research reveals a generation afraid to talk to one another, never mind listen, if there’s risk of hurt feelings. “If everyone must be emotionally safe at all times, a free discussion of ideas is inherently dangerous. Opposing viewpoints can’t just be argued against; they have to be shut down, because merely hearing them can cause harm.”

Gone, it seems, is the fortitude to stand up to and engage directly with deeply challenging ideas. I don’t recall having the privilege or inclination to establish “safe spaces” to avoid the discomfort of intellectual conflict. It’s a weak and destructive position. And “trigger warnings?” That’s a new one too.

In a recent paper called “Addressing the Real Crisis of Free Expression on Campus," Newseum President Jeffrey Herbst finds that young adults have developed an "alternate understanding" of the First Amendment — “the right to non-offensive speech.” Herbst cites a 2016 Knight Foundation survey that found nearly half of high school students believe it’s ok to limit speech if it’s offensive to others. He reports a “real lack of civics knowledge and knowledge about the First Amendment in primary and secondary schools.”

I personally experienced these phenomena when recently observing a student protest around a Confederate statue at the University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill. Upon suggesting a civil Listen First Conversation to a group of students, I was shouted down with “There's nothing to talk about here!” “If you want to talk to somebody, go talk to them!” So, I did. And “them,” an older group of counter-protesters, were quite interested in engaging in civil conversation with their ideological opponents.

Thankfully, once many of the students dispersed and “us versus them” became “me and you,” I was able to facilitate rich and truly educational conversations. Those students courageous enough to stick around found themselves in close proximity to people of alternative perspectives. One by one, they came to the remarkable realization that this threat to their psychological safety is largely comprised of human beings not so unlike themselves and that a little honest give and take doesn’t hurt so bad after all.

The trend of intellectual intolerance on college campuses only hastens the cultural problems inherent to the “Big Sort.” For some time, Americans have been settling down in neighborhoods with people that look and think a lot like them, missing out on all manner of diversity for much of their lives. But at least this homogeneous sorting often followed years of diverse exposure at college or in other, more expansive environments. If we don’t restore the true meaning of liberal education — preparing individuals to deal with complexity, diversity and change with broad knowledge of the wider world — to our universities, we’ll be in danger of ideological sanitization from cradle to grave and find society even more polarized and tribalized.

With the Listen First movement to restore civil discourse, we inspire hope and behavior change — encouraging conversation towards increased respect and understanding across differences. I believe in the power of Listen First to restore relationships, build bridges and mend the frayed fabric of society. But it will take every generation, in every phase of life. College students are not excused. That’s why we’re rolling out Listen First chapters on campuses across America. Today’s students are establishing patterns that will dictate behavior for the rest of their lives and thus the future of American society and discourse.

In a country founded on free speech and free expression, we are not safe from challenging and troubling ideas, nor should we be. It’s when competing ideas are heard and civilly debated that the best solutions win. Let’s all take a major step forward together — listen first.  

Pearce Godwin is founder and CEO of Listen First Project and the Listen First Coalition. He drives the national Listen First movement to restore civil discourse. Godwin can be reached at