The Silenced Students in the “Free Speech” Debate

The Silenced Students in the “Free Speech” Debate

The Silenced Students in the “Free Speech” Debate

Marginalized people at universities across the country are trying to reframe the conversation around censorship and expression.


The nearly 650 comments on the Young America’s Foundation’s April 6 tweet are laced with venom. The post is a video of Lukas, a first-year student at the University of North Carolina–Greensboro (UNCG) who filmed a peacekeeping message to the university community ahead of Ben Shapiro’s visit to campus.

“This is an illness.”

“Another fatherless child.”


Shapiro was invited by UNCG’s chapter of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), an affiliate of the Young America’s Foundation, after the group faced backlash for posting a transphobic Shapiro quote on their social media. In his video, Lukas, who is transgender, warns that engaging with YAF could do more harm than good—“It creates an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ narrative that puts the Young Americans for Freedom against transgender people,” he explains. “It also validates their opinions and gives them a platform in which they can spread transphobic nonsense.”

While Lukas brushes off the comments as “hilarious”—most attempt to insult him while using his pronouns, and one points to his receding hairline as evidence—some from his current and former classmates cut deep. “I read all of them,” he says, with a hint of solemnity.

Many of the comments blame Lukas’s identity on his education, reflecting the national microscope on inclusive and historically accurate education in public schools. “They are sick for teaching this to children,” one commenter wrote. Another: “What the hell is going on in our schools.” And in a blanket condemnation, “This is why not only should you NOT send your kids to public schools, but you should NOT allow your children to go to these private colleges!”

Despite his call for civility, Lukas faces unrelenting online harassment for his identity—and he’s not alone. Across the country, students from marginalized backgrounds describe the impact of unfettered hate speech, misinformation, and unrecognized privilege in education on their mental health and physical safety. To these students, the national conversation about free speech on campus requires serious reframing.

In March 2022, University of Virginia senior Emma Camp’s viral New York Times op-ed put a spotlight on the dialogue surrounding free speech on college campuses. Camp, who is white and identifies as liberal, argued that she often felt that her classmates held back from expressing their political and moral views out of fear of cancellation.

Camp describes situations in which she and her classmates faced social backlash for speaking their minds about topics ranging from the newest Marvel movie to abandoned cultural practices. She argues that there is a difference between criticism and “public shaming” —and the culture at American colleges and universities is shifting towards the latter.

Ria Sardesai, a fellow senior at UVA who penned an op-ed in The Cavalier Daily responding to Camp’s article, countered that students like herself and Camp are having different conversations when it comes to free speech on their campus.

“In [Camp’s] piece, all of the students involved were very outspoken, but their opinions were dissented [from] by their peers—isn’t that the very nature of debate?” Sardesai wrote. “Free speech is that you’re allowed to…voice your opinion, and you won’t get legally punished for it—you’re not free from consequence,” she adds.

She articulates a key difference between her experience and that of her white peers: there is a pattern of disrespect and endangerment of students from marginalized backgrounds that speak out at UVA that extends beyond the classroom. This mirrors a national trend—a 2020 study by Gallup and the Knight Foundation found that an overwhelming majority of students prioritize free speech on campus, but women and minorities were less likely to feel like the First Amendment “protects people like themselves,” and more likely “to say comments they have heard made them feel uncomfortable or unsafe.”

Alexia Hernandez knows firsthand how conversations around “free speech” can escalate into online harassment and censorship—shuttering significant avenues of student expression. Hernandez is a community organizer and senior at Texas A&M University, the largest university in the United States by enrollment and number three on the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)’s list of “best colleges for free speech.” In the summer of 2020, an anonymous individual intensely stalked Hernandez online and compiled her information on the university’s public sports forum TexAgs. The stalker posted screenshots of her social media profiles and photos of Hernandez with her former employer—she also began to receive harassing messages on Twitter. Since then, she’s had to “lock down” her online presence and understand that “all student activists that engage with [accountability for discrimination or hatred] are being watched.”

After only a few months on campus, Ritwik Tati had his first taste of right-wing cancellation. The first-year student at Stanford University was the subject of a Twitter thread by the Stanford College Republicans (SCR) that criticized his role in protesting Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to the university and posted a photo of his profile. Tati says this wasn’t an isolated incident—SCR frequently targets students online who disagree with them—and he connected with a Stanford administrator whom he describes as “Executive Director, Threat Assessment,” aiding students that face personal attacks. Despite this institutional support, Tati feels as though Stanford doesn’t draw a clear line between free speech and harassment or hate speech.

“You’re not supposed to be able to [allow a platform for] hate speech, because hate speech is dangerous to people on campus,” Tati says, in reference to Pence’s visit to campus and SCR’s public backlash against the counterprotesters. “It [normalizes] violence against those marginalized groups in the future.”

Dr. Sigal Ben-Porath, a professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, says this is a uniquely American phenomenon. “The biggest difference between the US and other democratic countries is that hate speech is protected in the United States,” Ben-Porath says. “The fact that hate speech is permissible and protected here really creates a different type of legally permissible dialogue.”

In 2017, Ben-Porath published the book Free Speech on Campus, which analyzes modern debates surrounding expression on college campuses and provides recommendations for nurturing an open exchange of ideas while guaranteeing the safety of minority students.

“We have to pay some attention to the concerns being raised by marginalized communities as we are thinking about the practices that can support a culture of open expression,” she remarks.

On her Twitter profile, Hernandez’s name is followed by a simple call to action: “#SavetheBatt.” She says the hashtag references the moment when she realized that administrators and alumni were intent on stifling open dialogue on her campus.

In February 2022, new Texas A&M President Katherine Banks had administrators inform student leaders at The Battalion, a student-run campus news source, that they must immediately cease printing physical copies of the publication and transition from their status as a student organization to a program under the Department of Journalism, or risk losing their office space and faculty adviser. The decision, which Hernandez says “sent a shock wave through the community,” came with no warning or discussion with anyone involved with the publication. She adds that the student newspaper has “been known to publish pieces that have been critical of university administrators, or unsavory to donors.”

A few weeks after the abrupt decision to move The Battalion online, the newspaper published an investigative deep-dive into the Rudder Association, a nonprofit created by conservative Texas A&M alumni to exert influence on administrative decisions. Meeting minutes reveal that members of the organization met with the university’s president and members of the A&M system’s Board of Regents to discuss a number of goals, including “get[ting] conservative speakers signed up for as many speaker slots as possible in order to minimize slots for liberal speakers on campus.”

Hernandez explains that the oversized presence of alumni on Texas A&M’s campus is nothing new, but “it’s frustrating that [alumni] take advantage of the political climate and the culture of Texas A&M to…harm the interests of current students.”

Sardesai knows this story well. She explains that alumni influence plays a large role in shaping administrative influence on UVA and the greater Charlottesville community. In recent years, Sardesai says, many alumni advocated against renaming Alderman Library, which is dedicated to a former UVA president who was a notorious eugenicist. Reflecting on the power dynamic between willing donors and students strapped for cash, Sardesai says, “They hold way more power, because they are providing a lot of money in terms of donations—we are required to pay tuition.”

James Wilson, in his first year at GSU, says coverage of the conversation about free speech is “lopsided,” favoring white, conservative views. He predicts that the movement against critical race theory, diversity, equity, and inclusion “is really going to put an importance on people going to college because their high school and middle school education will be censored”—universities will be the first time many students have a serious conversation about race in the classroom.

As K-12 public education shies away from teaching nuanced history from multiple perspectives, Wilson thinks universities need to react accordingly: “Colleges are going to want to become a place of refuge for students of color. [They’re] going to become the place where we can finally come and speak our truths freely.”

Dr. Ben-Porath explains that speech is already legally restricted in primary and secondary school—K-12 students can face punishment for their words, jokes, or writing in educational environments. In the current system, high school students are unprepared to engage with a truly open environment in college, which often leads to offense, discomfort, or extremism. “You have not been properly prepared for the kind of open expression environment that we are hoping to support and encourage on college campuses,” Ben-Porath remarks.

Community organizer Jordan Madden is working to get to the root of this problem. Madden, a first-year student at Georgia State University, spends his time between classes at the Georgia capitol building, advocating for historically accurate and diverse public education. He says that the lack of a curriculum on social issues and race in public K-12 schools fails to equip students with the skills they need to have complex conversations in college.

“It’s creating a pipeline system that is allowing students from the time they’re very young to the time they’re well into their careers not to challenge what society has been their whole lives,” Madden says between cycles of the laundry machine in his GSU dorm. This is the only time he is available to speak—he was at the Capitol until 1 am the night before, on the last day of Georgia’s legislative session.

When students turned alumni and administrators aren’t given a diverse, holistic education, shifts in university demographics and national attitudes around racial equality can be “uncomfortable.” However, Madden adds, the discomfort experienced by people of color is “different from the [discomfort experienced by] people who are leading these bills.”

For Sabirah Mahmud, in her first year at the University of Pennsylvania, this is a familiar sentiment. As a brown, low-income student from West Philadelphia, she understands that racial and socioeconomic privilege allows her classmates to believe they can speak on issues about which they are unfamiliar or uninformed. “There’s going to be discomfort when people from a repressed perspective feel like they can finally speak up, and people who have had decades and lifetimes of speaking can’t speak,” Mahmud says.

Lukas leans back in his seat, contemplating the reason he chose to attend UNCG. As an in-state, public university with a reputation for being queer-friendly, it felt like the safest place for him at the time. Despite the online harassment he faced, it may still be an improvement from his violently transphobic upbringing. Hernandez is more sardonic—she chose Texas A&M because it was the most affordable option, and she was excited about the university’s involved culture—the same close-knit environment that stifles her classmates’ ability to express themselves.

These students don’t hate their universities—they recognize the pressing need for a cultural shift in the free speech conversation that will prioritize the voices of minority students, targeting hate speech, harassment, and misinformation in all levels of education. “A few months ago, I would have said that we have some of the best free speech in the nation,” Hernandez said. “But now it seems like speech is only protected when it follows a certain narrative.”

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