Published author and education editor for spiked-online.com, Joanna Williams, gave a speech at Cal State Fullerton about state of free speech in academia.
The campus talk “Free Speech at the University: Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity” took place in communications chair and professor Jason Shepard’s 11 a.m. communications law class.
Williams began by noting the parallels between Brexit and the presidential election of Donald Trump in regards to the response from academia.
She believes universities in America took a stance against Trump similarly to universities in Britain that urged students to vote to remain in the European Union.
Williams argued that the homogenous viewpoint of faculty is problematic because it can differ from the opinions of the general public.
“If your job is to comment on society, then I think it really helps to know what people off campus think about things,” Williams said.
In both situations, students had a “parallel” initial reaction of shock, Williams said, which she credits to the absence of opposing viewpoints.
“Students have been told now that they can be protected from things they find offensive,” Williams said.
As students continue to be told they are protected from speech they find offensive, their reaction toward those who think differently can become irrational.
By creating safe spaces and canceling classes, university administrators are validating students’ emotional responses, Williams said.
“I think academics have been responsible for teaching students that ideas or words can be dangerous and can inflict actual psychological harm on people,” Williams said.
In her speech, Williams introduces the term “generational snowflake,” which suggests millennials “melt” when they find anything offensive. To her, the older generations are responsible for creating this mentality among students.
Taylor Saucedo, a senior communications major, had a different take.
“I don’t think millennials are melting at anything offensive, I think they’re being more conscious and respectful,” Saucedo said.
Saucedo said she believes those who dismiss student responses are not aware of what they are saying.
“I think they’re voicing why they’re offended. People just think that they’re crying about it but then they’re not listening to them,” Williams said. “If you want people to voice their opinions about being offensive, then you have to listen to the people that are offended.”
Williams agreed that “generational snowflake” is not a term many students identify with.
“Most of the students I’ve met are very open-minded and don’t like being labeled ‘generation snowflake’ and want to engage in new ideas,” Williams said.
She said the responsibility lies on the administration to engage students with different ideas.
“I think academics need to be saying to people ‘Yes, you might not agree with this idea, but let’s look at how we can take it up, let’s look at where this idea comes from and how we can challenge it,’” Williams said.
When people are not given the opportunity to argue their ideas, they keep them to themselves, she said.
“If you ban ideas or say they’re not welcome, you bury them underground. You don’t make them go away, you just suppress them,” Williams said.
She said people took these suppressed ideas into their voting booths where they freely expressed them which is why Donald Trump was elected.
“So I think the more you have these ideas out in the open, the more you allow people to argue.”