The Limits of Free Speech: The Best & Brightest Business Majors Weigh In


Such restraints – and the mob mentality it can sometimes inspire – foster several risks. For one, they breed isolation, where dialogue is simply shut off, writes one business major. “Divisions in our ideologies will only grow starker since one side doesn’t even want to hear from the other. How will we ever truly understand a controversial topic, or more importantly the people that resonate with it, if we never hear what the other side has to say?”

Even more, they set a dubious precedent, one where – in the words of another Best & Brightest – “the decision that someone should not speak is a small step towards silencing everyone.” That creates a whole host of unanswered questions adds another student.

“What is considered offensive? Who makes that call? Preventing certain speakers from expressing views on a college campus creates a dangerous culture of censorship. Perhaps their words may offend someone, but the benefit of preventing a censorship culture outweighs whatever damage these speakers could cause.”


In fact, as one student points out, anything can be construed as offensive by another party. “If we stop someone from speaking because someone else could potentially take offense to what the speaker discusses, then we would have no speakers,” she posits. Anyone could take offense to anything, and that fact cannot be avoided. We cannot prevent people from discussing the tough, highly debatable subjects because if we prevent such discussions, we are also preventing change and reform towards a better society.”

If reform is even possible, that is. As one Best & Brightest stresses, tamping down on speech is almost a futile exercise. The reason? Most students already hold strong viewpoints. Still, the outside pressure to curb speech can actually work against the central mission of education. “I think that people often get caught up in the fear of offending anyone and everyone, and lose their unique voices in the process,” observes one business major. “Sometimes your opinion may not be the most popular, but if you remain well-intentioned and respectful to others, I believe it deserves to be heard in some way.”

Indeed, you won’t find the Class of 2018 to be no-strings-attached Libertarians who argue for unfettered speech regardless of content. Several Best & Brightest set reasonable conditions for value-added speech to flourish. One student, for example, cites context as a variable, arguing that figures who are inspiring, not contrarian, should be chosen to deliver commencement addresses. Another contends that speaking engagements should be forums where both sides can be heard.

“This way no one can make offensive claims to a defenseless public. I think having a conversation with both sides of the issue represented enhances the quality of the experience and explains to the audience the strengths and weaknesses of both sides.”


Where else does the Class of 2020 draw the line? One business grad believes it should be set at speech that incites violence. Another believes limits should start at hate speech. “If a speaker has outright racist or discriminatory views that isolate a segment of students and make them feel unsafe or unwelcome on their own campus,” she writes, “then they should not be allowed to speak on campus and fuel hatred.”

In fact, “intent” is a litmus test that runs across the Best & Brightest in terms of acceptance speech on campus. One student applies a simple question to decipher whether a speaker is worth bringing to campus: Are they trying to initiate positive change or educate students on an issue, or are they acting intentionally against a specific individual or group?”

To do that, one respondent focuses on a speaker’s track record. “Someone may find my political views offensive just because it doesn’t concord with theirs,” he admits. “However, I believe that there is a distinction where someone may be offended by a different opinion and someone blatantly being racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, etc. We should look at the speaker’s record to determine whether he or she has a different point of view that others may not be in favor of or if this person is being blatantly offensive. If the speaker’s opinions are different than others, then let the speaker express his or her views; if the speaker is blatantly offensive, then he or she should not be allowed to speak on campus.”

Another Best & Brightest assesses whether the speaker represents offensive speech or hate speech. And there’s a big difference, he notes. “Controversial speakers should absolutely be allowed the right to speak on campus, and students who disagree with their perspective are allowed the right to debate, protest, and petition against the speaker’s views. Speakers who should not be allowed on campus are those who threaten the fundamental safety of students with specific identities. Milo Yiannopoulos is one such example. He purposefully targeted and outed trans students in his speeches at universities, with the explicit goal of hurting them. Speakers such as him do not incite productive dialogue; they merely stand to divide and hurt students.”


Not surprisingly, several business majors gauged the issue in more pragmatic terms. That starts with who is paying the speaker’s stipend. “If an individual organization wants to bring a speaker to campus that could be offensive using the money of only the members, then I think they should be able to,” writes one student. “Once the organization starts to use money from the tuition of the general student population, then I believe that their opinions should at least be considered if a large amount of them are offended by a speaker.”

Others assert that students should be given a voice on who is allowed to speak on campus. They are footing the bills, after all – and there are plenty of ways their tuition and fees can be spent. “Speakers shouldn’t simply be given access to that crowd as a platform to capitalize on their views unless their presence is requested by the majority,” asserts one Best & Brightest from the south. “We pay to enjoy access to campus and its resources. As stakeholders, we should all have a vote to chime in on such important matters. To simply claim the concept of free speech as a basis to promote wildly divisive views is asinine, especially when the funds allocated to cover expenses associated with those speakers could definitely be used for numerous initiatives (i.e. scholarships, mental health awareness).”

Then, of course, there is the issue of whether an institution is public or private – a difference with certain distinctions argues one Best & Brightest. “As a student in a private university, I would expect my university to put our best interests first and not allow offensive speech on campus. For public universities, it is much more complex.”


The issue also includes a public relations dimension, where sponsoring certain speakers can create an impression that a school isn’t truly committed to its mission and values. “College campuses should serve as place where students can feel comfortable and safe,” emphasizes one student. “If a college permits a speaker with an offensive rhetoric, then students may presume that the college itself supports the speaker’s views. This can alienate students and lead to feelings of detachment from the school and its population.”

Fair or not, student safety hangs over the debate as well. When it comes to potential violence, many students struggle to find a middle ground between upholding free speech and protecting students from injury when passions boil over. That’s why one Best & Brightest places the responsibility on the speakers themselves.

“If there is credible evidence that allowing a controversial speaker may cause harm, then the first duty of the college becomes ensuring no harm will come to the community as a result of these events. If a speaker expressing views that could be offensive to others wants to speak on college campuses, the burden of proof must be put on him or her to provide evidence that this engagement will not result in any harm.”


If anything, however, this debate is great preparation for the post-graduation world, where gruff bosses, double-dealing clients, and crass co-workers will rule the roost. In other words, such speakers train students to deal with the very people who may ultimately make-or-break their careers.

“There will always be people with extreme or offensive views,” writes one Best & Brightest. “As college students preparing to be the next generation of leaders, I believe it is extremely important to be able to listen to and understand other points of views. Though uncomfortable, it will provide food for thought and prepare us to be able to effectively work with others.”

“In life,” adds another, “people will inevitably encounter ways of life and ways of thinking that contradict what they believe, or may even seem offensive to them. “The proper course is not to shield students from this, but to expose them to it. Otherwise, they will venture through life as neurotics with endless bouts of cognitive dissonance.”


If anything, maybe the solution is shared responsibility, one where the community and the speaker find a respectful happy medium that creates a learning opportunity for all.

“What needs to be addressed is how students and speakers can engage in not just dialogue, but productive dialogue,” observes one Best & Brightest. “I have seen video and experienced first-hand speakers who are unwilling to answer questions from the audience, or students who have asked questions that further polarize rather than challenge. These events must be framed as an opportunity to ignite much needed dialogue between opposing viewpoints. However, this can only be done if both sides are willing to engage openly and meaningfully.”

What do you think? Share your views in the comments section below.








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