Campus Speech: "Uninhibited, Robust, and Wide Open?"

On Trigger Warnings And College-Level Censorship
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On September 5, the Evans Library of the Florida Institute of Technology sponsored a Banned Books Read-Out of censored comics and graphic novels. Dean of Libraries Sohair Wastawy recalls growing up in her native Egypt, which has seen its share of censorship, too. It is fascinating to explore cultural differences in regard to censorship. While some cultures are uncomfortable with what they view as blasphemous works, others are more concerned with overt sexuality. Some prohibit political opposition to the ruling party or royalty. In the United States, the public has generally tolerated written attacks on our elected officials, but many have supported the removal of Harry Potter books from schools and public libraries for its witchcraft themes.

As an academic librarian myself, I am happy when colleges and universities celebrate Banned Books Week. The general public might be surprised that higher education is responsible for creating many barriers to the freedom to read and study and speak. And these barriers are getting higher and more complex to dismantle. Many are not about the physical removal of information from collections, although this, too, does still occur.

Some campuses maintain a "free speech zone," usually one designated site where the campus community can speak out on any topic. These zones imply that in other campus locations -- like classrooms and libraries -- free speech rights might not be upheld. That is why the state of Virginia passed legislation banning such zones in April, 2014. We hope to see more of this legislation in other states.

Campus civility continues to be a complex problem and is the topic of a recent controversy at the University of California, Berkeley, where Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, in speaking of the 50th anniversary of the free speech movement, stated: "Specifically, we can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so, and this in turn requires that people treat each other with civility." This appears to be in sharp contrast to what Supreme Court Justice William Brennan said in the famous New York Times v. Sullivan case. He stated that speech should be "uninhibited, robust, and wide open and it may well cause vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials." Where on the free speech spectrum does one draw the line between concern for civility and freedom to speak?

Another complex question is brewing on the nation's campuses, which saw their share of 2014 commencement speaker cancellations. A growing concern is the influence of deep-pocketed donors on campus decision making. At what point will donors begin to dictate the collection content of academic libraries? I suggest that they have already done this.

State legislatures have had a stunning impact on library collections this year. In the case of South Carolina, some legislators were so angry at the College of Charleston and the University of South Carolina Upstate for purchasing LGBTQ books that they tried to punish them by withdrawing funds in budget negotiations. At the last minute this action was changed to a mandate that campuses include content on the founders. Hopefully some of this funding will be used to buy books on why the Founders decided to include a Bill of Rights, with a First Amendment, in the Constitution!

"Trigger warnings" is yet another dilemma that began in grade school and now has continued into higher education. Librarians are well aware of attempts to label books for children so that they are not exposed to vocabulary they do not yet understand, or remove books because they include disturbing content that depicts racism, rape, sexism, and offensive slurs. Now some colleges have adopted "trigger warnings," so that students who have experienced PTSD, for example, will be warned that a particular book or piece of art may trigger their condition. The American Association of University Professors has issued a statement opposing such trigger warnings, which "reduce students to vulnerable victims rather than full participants in the intellectual process of education."

If you work in, study at, or are otherwise involved with a local community college, college, or university, I ask that you spend some time during Banned Books Week to discuss at least one of these issues with colleagues and take action to affirm academic freedom. We can't take it for granted.

CORRECTION: This post was previously published under the incorrect byline. The byline has been corrected.

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