The iGeneration, inclusivity, and free speech on college campuses

Who are the iGen’ers?  “Inclusiveness”: Compared to those born into previous generations, the iGeneration or iGen’ers–individuals born between 1995 and 2012–are more likely to support restriction of free speech, particularly hate speech, on college campuses to ensure that no student feels offended by or excluded from the dominant majority. According to Dr. Jean M. Twenge,…
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Jiin (Jenny) Huh

April 4, 2018

Who are the iGen’ers? 

“Inclusiveness”: Compared to those born into previous generations, the iGeneration or iGen’ers–individuals born between 1995 and 2012–are more likely to support restriction of free speech, particularly hate speech, on college campuses to ensure that no student feels offended by or excluded from the dominant majority. According to Dr. Jean M. Twenge, in the past few years, college campuses have erupted in protests focused on eliminating not only discrimination but also offensive speech. Controversial campus speakers are increasingly “disinvited,” and student publications are often censored.

The Pew Research Center found that 40% of iGen’ers agreed that the government should prevent people from making offensive statements about minority groups. Furthermore, the research found that 35% of college students believed that the First Amendment does not protect hate speech. However, two-thirds of the adults on the same survey said that universities are not doing enough to teach the youth about the value of free speech. 65% of the adults said that “colleges should expose students to all types of viewpoints, even if they are offensive or biased against certain groups.” Yet, 51% of current college students stated that those who disrespect others do not deserve free speech rights. Roughly two-thirds of college students say colleges should be allowed to establish policies that restrict slurs and other language that is intentionally offensive to certain groups. About seven in ten students justify their institution’s adoption of policies designed to discourage offensive speech and behavior. 

What is hate speech?

Hate speech is defined as speech that is racist, sexist, homophobic, or similarly insulting. Racist cartoons, ethnic slurs or other derogatory racial label, and sexist statements, for example, are considered hate speech, the language iGen’ers aim to avoid as a group of individuals who promote an inclusive, non-discriminatory environment for all. People believe that hate speech is unconstitutional, and, thus, unacceptable. The First Amendment, however, legally protects hate speech. That amendment declares that Congress shall make “no law abridging the freedom of speech.” Speech is broadly defined as expression that includes, but is not limited to, what we wear, read, say, believe, or even protest. The law protects purely emotional and religious expression, and our speech does not have to be reasoned or articulate to enjoy Constitutional protection.

History of speech on campus

Battles over campus free speech have been continuous throughout American history. The student free speech movement began at the University of California Berkeley in 1964. Faculty members stopped students from distributing flyers and spreading information about the Civil Rights Movement in the South. Student Jack Weinberg was arrested for distributing civil rights literature. In protest, other students at the site sat on the road, blocking the police car with Weinberg for 32 hours. The confrontation proved too much for the university, and the faculty voted to end all restrictions on political activity. One of the first student movements proved victorious.

Soon thereafter, the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines case arose in the Supreme Court. Faculty members suspended three students for wearing black armbands, which the school had banned on campus, to protest governmental policy regarding Vietnam. The Court ruled that in wearing armbands, student petitioners did not invade others’ rights, so their conduct was within the protection of the First Amendment. Furthermore, the Court stated that prohibitions against expression of opinion with no evidence of interference with school discipline or the rights of others were unconstitutional. Although at a high school, not a college, Tinker v. Des Moines represented yet another major increase in students’ rights to free speech.

While previous generations of students fought for the guarantee of free speech, today’s iGen’ers seem to value the opposite.

Campus Disinvitations

Campus dis-invitations are a common means for students to restrict offensive speech in the name of inclusiveness. According to data published by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, since early 2000, more than 240 campaigns have been launched at universities to prevent “offensive,” “biased” public figures from attending campus events. Among surveyed college and graduate students, 64% said that if their institution hosted a racist speaker, they would not attend the speech. Many would take direct action: 43% would attend the speech and ask the speaker difficult questions, 39% would hold a counter-event at a separate location, and 36% would even sign a petition to get the speech cancelled beforehand.

For example, in the past year, more than five universities have denied Richard Spencer the right to speak on their campuses. The universities viewed Spencer as a white nationalist and “alt-right” advocate who held views of potential controversy and offense to minorities. Penn State President Eric Barron cited safety concerns as the main reason for denying Spencer’s speech: “After critical assessment by campus police, we have determined that Mr. Spencer is not welcome on our campus, as this event presents a major security risk to students, faculty, and staff on campus. It is the likelihood of disruption and violence that drives our decision.” Barron continued that Spencer’s one-sided views were “abhorrent” and “contradictory” to Penn State’s values. Faculty members believed the campus was no place for hatred.

Spencer and his supporters, on the other hand, argued that universities were using the “heckler’s veto,”citing safety concerns as excuses to suppress free speech. Often, however, students caused such heated debates by actively protesting the presence of controversial figures on campus. Barron’s statement reflected students’ worries, and it seems action was taken in response to student complaints. Jeanine Sikes, a spokeswoman for the University of Florida, which denied Spencer on the same grounds that Penn State did, told USA Today that for the first time in recent history, the university had denied a speaker in fear of violence and exclusivity of students.   

Recently in Berkeley, a student-led protest against a scheduled speech by conservative provocateur Milo Yiannapolous resulted in a public riot between his supporters and non-supporters (both groups included students). Protesters set fires, and commercial-grade fireworks may also have been thrown at police. Students thus passionately, on the grounds of inclusiveness, prevented a controversial, potentially offensive speaker from lecturing on their campus. At a press conference regarding the incident, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks said, “We fully support the right of our students to host speakers of their choice. We also, however, have a dedication to guarantee the safety of our students and other members of campus.”.

Student Media

Censorship of student media is another limitation of speech college students support to be more inclusive. While there are many written forms of student expression on campuses that are considered hate speech, such as posters and graffiti, experts consider the school newspaper the most prevalent venue. Some universities have policies that require advisor review of student newspaper content before publication. Faculty members may even edit the content of student work on the basis of the viewpoints expressed. While federal court decisions often suggest that such a method is unconstitutional, and experts believe that student media plays a vital role in educating issues to the campus community, the iGeneration students worry about creating an exclusive environment with potential hate speech.

In response, over the years, universities increasingly censor a free student press. To some, such strict limitations deprive the campus of open discussion, debate, and expression, while in the eyes of others, the campus becomes a more welcoming, free environment for each individual.


Due to students’ increased support of restricted speech, experts worry that the American college no longer serves its traditional role as a place for higher education. Critics explain that with its traditions of research, discourse, and debate, the university is supposed to offer a great deal of freedom to students. The court has stated that “modern-day universities are intended to function as marketplaces of ideas, where students interact with each other and with their professors in a collaborative learning environment.”

This controversial topic of academic freedom serves as a guiding principle for higher education, and educational specialists generally claim that “an academy must be free to research, teach, and debate ideas without censorship or outside interference.” While some believe that the societal function of the university is to serve as the ultimate “free speech zone,” others counter that unrestricted speech may actually disturb the goals of higher education by offending certain students and compromising the inclusive community iGen’ers value. Such offenses may result in physical, mental, or emotional harm serious and uncomfortable enough to affect students’ learning abilities.  

Furthermore, experts explain that college students’ increased desires for inclusivity by eliminating offensive speech has resulted in the establishment of “trigger warnings,” which are alerts that professors must issue if a course topic could cause strong emotional response. For example, students have asked for warnings about topics such as racial violence, misogyny, and physical abuse, so that classmates who have been previously victimized would not have a triggering of past trauma.

As the use of trigger warnings on campus has become more prevalent, students across the country have come to demand that their professors issue warnings before discussing “sensitive” material. Students also argue that materials with the potential to trigger negative reactions should be avoided altogether unless they “contribute directly” to course goals. According to a report by the Pew Research Center, 38% of students believed that faculty members should not discuss racial differences in class. Experts say that such desires could be problematic in classes such as psychology, sociology, and political science, which present research on racial differences.

While psychologists understand that trigger warnings are demanded to ensure all students experience a comfortable learning environment, they worry that the avoidance of such reactions may be detrimental in the long run. Since the classroom is intended to be a safe place for open discussion, experts believe it to be beneficial for those with traumas to cope with such struggles in college. The real world may be less willing to accommodate requests for trigger warnings.

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