College Should Prioritize Healthy Working Environment Over Free Speech

Daniel Markus, Managing Editor

Imagine the following scenario: You work in an office. One day at work, the company brings in a speaker to give a presentation about business development. Midway through, the presenter starts making incredibly disparaging comments about women. What would you do?

Most likely, you would file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, because the presenter’s actions are prohibited under federal law. According to the EEOC, “The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.”

If you were a member of this workplace, you wouldn’t expect coworkers to go about their business as if the presentation weren’t happening, even if they weren’t necessarily in the room. Yet that seems to be the perverse standard to which college students are held these days.

Last week, conservative firebrand Ann Coulter canceled a planned speech at the University of California, Berkeley, amid safety concerns and threats of massive protests, reigniting a vicious debate over free speech that has raged on college campuses across the country in recent years. In March, the same thing happened at Middlebury College when a planned speech by Charles Murray — author of the controversial 1994 book The Bell Curve — was targeted and eventually derailed by protests. Before Murray, there was former Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopolous, whose speech at Berkeley was also canceled when protests became violent.

The list goes on, and pundits continue to decry students at elite colleges for promoting censorship. These prophecies of the liberal censorship apocalypse are not only absurd at best, but seem fundamentally ignorant of this simple fact: We don’t have absolute free speech in the workplace. Why should we have it at colleges?

In addition to the pursuit of knowledge, perhaps the most fundamental reason students attend college is to prepare themselves for entry into the workforce. While a college degree wasn’t necessarily always critically important to acquiring a good job, Georgetown University estimates that by 2020, 65 percent of jobs will require post-secondary education.

So, if the point of college really is to prepare students to enter the workforce, colleges should actually prepare them for the workplaces they are set to enter — ones that are bound by federal law. Instead of bemoaning student behavior, we could instead teach them the legal rights they’ll soon have and how to use them when faced with a hostile work environment.

Additionally, colleges are themselves workplaces for many students. Beyond the jobs students take on to help pay for school, the classroom, too, is a sort of workplace. Professors and institutions expect a certain amount of productivity out of their students, and our productivity — how much we get done and how well we do it — is just like employee productivity in the workplace.

Speaking of workplace productivity, numerous studies and analyses over the years have shown that discrimination can lower worker productivity, even if subtle and unintentional. The same is true in college.

When an Oberlin professor received anti-Semitic threats after President Donald Trump’s election, I found myself suddenly unable to focus. How could I finish my physics problem set when there were surely more important things to be done, like spending time with the Jewish community here? All I could think about was what this event meant for me as a young Jewish student; Newtonian mechanics was the least of my worries.

The key difference between college and the workplace is that hostile work environments don’t follow you home. In addition to working and studying, college students also sleep, bathe, eat and socialize on their campuses. Many of us — especially at small schools like Oberlin — spend every waking minute totally immersed in our campuses. And while critics will argue that students opposed to controversial speakers should simply not attend their events, going to college means it’s not that simple.

After the vandalism, I recovered pretty quickly, but there’s no doubt it affected my grades, and it taught me just how pervasive and all-consuming issues of discrimination can be on campus. Even though I wasn’t the person targeted, it was impossible to avoid confronting and discussing anti-Semitism. That act of vandalism got everyone talking. Even though I felt physically safe on campus, every conversation in the following days served as a painful reminder of the hate directed at me and my Jewish peers by the outside world.

The same thing happens when controversial speakers come to campus. Every aspect of student life is affected. Conversations in the dining hall become immediately politicized, as do statements by professors in classes, and everyone’s fuses get shorter, often spilling over into hostile arguments around privilege. Physically avoiding hateful speakers is easy; beyond that, it’s impossible.

Critics argue that if such speakers don’t come to campus, students will suffer because they won’t be exposed to opposing viewpoints and that such restrictions pose an undue burden on free speech. But professors should and do introduce controversial topics and modes of thought in their courses, which is a far more effective method of actually learning them.

Public lectures, especially ones with politically charged content, are tremendously stressful environments for students. During a speech, students don’t have the opportunity to ask intermittent questions. And at a time when violence at political events is increasingly prevalent, these speeches can even become physically dangerous for students who express different views than those of the speaker. Introducing controversial topics in the classroom removes real and perceived threats for students and gives them the opportunity to more fully analyze proposals from people with different political views. In other words, controlled exposure increases the probability that liberal students change their minds, which is exactly what conservatives should want.

The solution, then, is for colleges to be more selective about the speakers they allow to come to campus. There will be no perfect way to do this, but a sensible one would be the creation of a speakers’ committee made up of students, faculty and staff with diverse political views. Students could petition the committee to block speakers who they felt would be harmful to the campus community. It could hear testimony from concerned students, faculty and staff on all sides and make decisions based on this testimony, its research into the speaker in question, impacts on campus safety and other factors.

Almost inevitably, either liberals or conservatives would be unhappy with every decision such a committee would make, but that is almost the exact situation on college campuses now. At the very least, something like the above could formalize the process and give both sides the opportunity to have their voices heard.

The mission of college is not free speech; it is to help its students succeed in their education. To do so, not only do students need to feel comfortable in the environments where they work, they also need to prepare to enter the workplace. That workplace is one where they will have recourse to address hostile work environments, and instead of demanding that they suppress real concerns, we should be teaching them how to stand up for their rights.