At a hearing jointly sponsored by two subcommittees of the House Committee on Government Affairs and Reform Tuesday, witnesses and lawmakers on both sides vehemently defended freedom of speech on campus.
But Democrats and more left-leaning witnesses expressed concern about hate speech – such as an incident at American University where someone hung bananas from nooses after the university elected its first African-American student body president, saying while universities should be open to free speech, they should not tolerate threats or attempts to intimidate.
“Hate speech is protected,” said Frederick Lawrence, a national commissioner for the Anti-Defamation League. “Hate crimes are not.”
He said that college administrators must discern between free expression, regardless of how offensive, and behavior that threatens or instills fear in fellow students.
But Shapiro argued that administrators often can’t be trusted to make that decision, sometimes banning controversial speakers in order to avoid large protests and effectively suppressing free speech on campus. He said increased sensitivities have caused students to claim that even the most innocuous comments can be perceived as “micro-aggressions.”
“You don’t have to actually say something to perform a micro-aggression,” he said, saying such a philosophy “turns students into snowflakes – craven, pathetic, looking for an excuse to be offended.”
Adam Carolla, a comedian and the creator of a documentary on free speech on campus, said adults on campus need to teach kids how to deal with ideas that they may disagree with.
“These are 18 and 19 year old kids that are at college campuses,” he said. “They grew up dipped in Purell, playing soccer games where they never kept score and watching Wow Wow Wubzy…Our plan was to put them in a bubble, keep them away from everything and somehow they would emerge stronger when they came out of the bubble.”
He said college administrators have sometimes shown bias in who they’ll defend and who they will not.
“When the administration doesn’t agree with what Ben Shapiro says, they don’t defend his right to say it as vigorously as if someone came on that they agree with.”
The protests, Lawrence said, reflect a larger level of divisiveness in society – people by and large are no longer are as tolerant of those that they disagree with.
“We need colleges to come to a better understanding of how to disagree civilly and respectfully,” he said. “Unless we understand what our opponents are saying we can never make a cogent argument against them.”
Carolla, meanwhile, was more bluntly.
“It’s all in the ear of the beholder,” he said. “And everyone’s ears are getting super sensitive these days.”
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