I woke up earlier this week to news that worshippers at a Pennsylvania church clutched AR-15 rifles while attending a commitment ceremony. A nearby school cancelled classes, but that is beside the point. Rifles in a place of worship would make the headlines any day, but this not-so-subtle assertion of gun rights got there faster than usual, coming as it did just days after a former student gunned down 17 people, including students and teachers, at a high school in Parkland, South Florida. So, there you have it. Proof that the Second Amendment, which gives people in the United States the right to keep and bear arms, is not in danger of being infringed upon. I wish I could say the same about the right to free speech on university campuses. In February last year, the University of California in Berkeley reported $100,000 worth of damage to the campus after protesters, including 150 masked agitators, went on the rampage to protest an appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos, professional provocateur and Donald Trump supporter. The university had to cancel the event following protests, but Yiannopoulos was back in Berkeley in September, addressing supporters and leaving the university, which had to provide security, poorer by $800,000.
In April last year, the university cancelled a speech by right-wing social and political commentator Ann Coulter, then had a change of mind, before cancelling the event for the second time. At Auburn University in Alabama, alt-right white nationalist Richard Spencer had to approach the court for permission to address students after the university tried to cancel the event. He hadn't even begun his speech when two people, one a Spencer supporter and the other opposed to his views, got into a brawl and later landed in jail. Wary of violence between conflicting groups, an increasing number of American universities are playing it safe by banning polarising speakers. As I dig deeper into the subject, I realise that threats to freedom of expression on university campuses isn't a new phenomenon. As far back as in 1994, the American Association of University Professors had let its stand known on the issue. "On a campus that is free and open, no idea can be banned or forbidden," the association said. "No viewpoint or message may be deemed so hateful or disturbing that it may not be expressed. An institution of higher learning fails to fulfil its mission if it asserts the power to proscribe ideas - and racial or ethnic slurs, sexist epithets, or homophobic insults almost always express ideas, however repugnant."
I do not think it is a coincidence that threats to free speech on university campuses have increased in recent times. Universities reflect the times we live in; one that is, unfortunately, more intolerant than we would like it to be. Diversity - of people, thoughts and ideas - is a beautiful thing, but not everyone seems to share that view. I remember my days as an international student at the University of Louisiana (Masters) and University of Southern Mississippi (PhD). Life on campus was pretty smooth. There is an underlying tension when it comes to race or religion, but it is subdued to a certain extent in a learning environment. Additionally, students are exposed to people from different cultures and races on a daily basis; such interaction may help mitigate any deviant behaviour. From what I see around me, in universities in US, the discussion on race and religion has become a lot more pronounced or explicit since Trump became president. Going purely by what I hear in the media, there has been an increase in instances of racism on university campuses as well as the outside world. While the man is as capable as anyone else in polarising opinion, I do not believe Trump is the only reason why we are witnessing an increase in intolerant behaviour.
Free speech is a precious right and should remain so. Being an educational institution, a university should be a beacon of hope and set a prime example of freedom of expression. However, I understand why universities sometimes act to pre-empt violence or unruly behaviour on campuses. University policies are designed to check deviant or anti-social behaviour and such regulation helps to keep a check on individuals that try to disrupt the free flow of information. Southern Methodist University, where I teach advertising, is one of them. A good example is when it sought input from more than 1,300 students, faculty and staff on a sensitive "campus carry" law in Texas. Even though the law contained an option for private universities to opt out and ban concealed handguns, the university chose an inclusive process before deciding that it would remain weapons free. Everyone had their say on the issue, and a decision was arrived at, democratically.
Acceptance of opposing views may be too much to ask in a deeply divided world, but I believe tolerance is an attainable goal. According to a recent survey of 3,000 college students by Gallup for the Knight Foundation and the Newseum Institute, 78 per cent favour campuses where even offensive and biased speech is permitted. That tells me that there is hope; that universities can show the world how it is done.
(The author is Assistant Professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, USA)