When we talk about free speech

Today’s college students face a different reality

Image for post
Image for post
This Pulitzer Prize-winning photo was carried in hundreds of newspapers and became a symbol of student protest

My family got an HP desktop computer with dial-up Internet right about the time I learned about the Kent State massacre.

I remember my high school history teacher Mr. Kittel covering the turbulent 1960s. The student protests. The marches. The cries to be heard for civil rights. The blowback and crackdown. We learned about police beating protestors at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and then the Ohio State National Guard opening fire and killing four college students at Kent State.

After school, I’d log onto the ‘net and send emails to friends through my new hotmail account. I’d read through message boards to see what people were saying about my favorite bands, Green Day and Nirvana.

I was suspended between two eras in the late 1990 and early 2000s. Looking backward to the ‘60s, there were marginal voices struggling to be heard against a sometimes oppressive status quo and authority. And looking forward, there was the information age, where people could say whatever they wanted online without much fear of repercussions.

As I was stumbling into the digital world with dial up, today’s college students were born. These digital natives grew up in a very different era.

Today’s college students were raised with both feet firmly planted in the digital world. To them, Kent State is a moment in black and white still photography that happened 30 years before they were born.

To digital natives, speech has always been abundant, unfettered and free. They have more free speech than any previous generation in history. It’s just a few taps and swipes away. They are the first generation to grow up with blogs, social media, texting, snapping, sexting, trolls, egg Twitter accounts and cyber bullying. They know the power of speech, for good or bad.

To this day, we live with a digital world where you can easily serve up Facebook advertising to “jew haters.” According to a new ProPublica investigation, if you “want to market Nazi memorabilia, or recruit marchers for a far-right rally” then “Facebook’s self-service ad-buying platform had the right audience for you.” “Traditionally, tech companies have contended that it’s not their role to censor the Internet or to discourage legitimate political expression,” wrote Julia Angwin, madeleine v and Ariana Tobin.

I wonder what students think of when they hear phrases like, “The remedy to bad speech is more speech.” Does that even make sense to them? They may smile and nod at the lecture and then wonder how we can possibly have more speech when the entirety of the world’s information is in their pockets.

I think about the context of how students grew up when I see Washington Post opinion headlines like, “A chilling study shows how hostile college students are toward free speech.” The emphasis on college students might be misleading.

“Colleges alone are not to blame for these findings,” writes Catherine Rampell. “Other data suggest that freshmen are arriving on campus with more intolerant attitudes toward free speech than their predecessors did, and that Americans of all ages have become strikingly hostile toward basic civil and political liberties.”

This suggests that it’s a generational component at play, or something bigger is shifting in society nearly 50 years after Kent State. If you look closer at the study, students not surprisingly object to hate speech, an attitude that holds steady across the political divides of college students.

Image for post
Image for post
via The Brookings Institution

This new digital environment impacts everyone, but those who are college age may feel it more acutely simply because it’s their entire life experience.

Here’s my theory. If you grew up remembering four college students killed by armed guardsmen, you’re going to value free political expression above all and worry about it getting shut down by authorities. But if you grew up experiencing or knowing about cyber bullying extreme enough to lead to suicide, you’re going to worry more about the dangers of free and unfettered speech.

One way to frame this headline is “A chilling study shows how hostile college students are toward free speech.” Another way to frame it is, “A study shows college students are fed up with racist attitudes, bullying and hate speech.”

Today’s college students aren’t “hostile” to free speech, any more than they’re hostile to the entire world of information at their fingertips. But they are a generation that faces different realities than their parents and grandparents before them, and because of that they adjust their values accordingly.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store