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The First Amendment and college students’ ‘muh feels’

What is it with college students and the First Amendment? How can one be accepted to a university and yet be so ill-informed about free speech?

Earlier this week a political science major(!!) and vice president of the University of Illinois student government had no idea there’s no “hate speech” exception to the First Amendment.

To her credit, upon discovering this fact she resigned her VP position as she said she could not handle the views of conservative pundit Matt Walsh.

Over to the east at Towson University, another public institution, there’s been a similar situation: The student paper The Towerlight wonders if the school’s Turning Point USA chapter can be punished for using “racist, ableist and homophobic language.”

Last month, “leaked screenshots” of comments (which The Towerlight said it could not verify) allegedly made by TPUSA members include liberal/socialist students are “communists” and look “unwell,” “rude” and “nasty,” the word “retarded” and (arguably the most offensive) a three-letter epithet beginning with “F” regarding LGBTQ Pride Month and the monkeypox virus.

Other remarks referred to downtown Baltimore as “the middle of f***ing Uganda,” and one group member allegedly said they’ll “say every name in the book” — even the “forbidden n-word.”

The Towson chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America (stupidly) said it would “demand” changes to official university policy “to prevent organizations dedicated to hate from spreading their bigotry.”

But Towson Vice President for Inclusion and Institutional Equity Patricia Bradley put the kibosh on that: She told attendees at a listening session on the matter that “bigoted, homophobic, racist assholes exist on our campus” and that “those bigoted, racist, homophobic assholes have constitutional protections.”

(And yes — using the “F” word, “N” word and/or “R” word outside of a pedagogical context is indeed a**holish.)

MORE: Student op-ed: Laws designed to protect free speech harm ‘oppressed groups’

Freedom Forum’s Kevin Goldberg added “I understand the [upset] students’ positions, but when you look at this from the bigger sentence, what you’re really doing is potentially taking political speech off the table.”

Towson TPUSA adviser Richard Vatz said the students (allegedly) involved with the messages were “apologetic” and that he would “bet heftily” that the “rhetorical immaturity and irresponsibility” won’t be repeated. Which, in an earlier era, likely would be enough to put the issue to rest.

But in the current “critical theory”-minded times, not only is an apology insufficient but our centuries-long take on free expression must be irrevocably altered — to protect the historically marginalized. As the now-resigned U. Illinois student government VP said, she wants a First Amendment which “prevent[s] the identity of certain groups from being diminished” (emphasis added).

To help justify this, we need to keep in mind that the First Amendment was created and codified by a bunch of white guys, according to the ACLU’s Jeremy Woodson.

Woodson recently told a Black Lives Matter Speaker Series audience at the University of Idaho that, ideally, the First Amendment’s “marketplace of ideas” weeds out the bad ideas from the good. But that marketplace is “something people have unequal access to,” he said.

This view is a common one in critical theory academia; UCLA’s K-Sue Park argued in The New York Times several years ago that the ACLU should “rethink” its approach to free speech as its current “colorblind” view “implies that the country is on a level playing field.”

“Could prioritizing First Amendment rights make the distribution of power in this country even more unequal and further silence the communities most burdened by histories of censorship?” Park asked.

In fairness to Park, her piece was written before the political influence of social media really took off. It’s rather difficult to believe that these days “marginalized” communities are deprived of a voice given who controls the major platforms … in addition to traditional media, popular entertainment and academia.

MORE: University: white males have the ‘power,’ equity needed for ‘justice to be achieved’

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Dave has been writing about education, politics, and entertainment for over 20 years, including a stint at the popular media bias site Newsbusters. He is a retired educator with over 25 years of service and is a member of the National Association of Scholars. Dave holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Delaware.