In recent weeks we’ve seen plentiful anecdotal evidence of the disturbingly censorious tendencies of American college students. Whether they’re demanding professors resign because they said it’s not a university’s place to regulate Halloween costumes, or protesting a free speech panel, or preventing student journalists from doing their job, it’s clear that many of the nation’s young people view freedom of speech as conditional.
Sadly, we now have the numbers to support this.
According to a report released by Pew on Friday, 40% of millennials — those currently between ages 18 and 34 — believe the government should be able to prevent people from uttering “statements that are offensive to minority groups.” That is markedly higher than any other generation polled.
More than any other age group, millennials fancy themselves as a vanguard of cultural toleration, and to achieve this they’ve deployed a myriad of oppressive tactics such as the ones documented above. In striving to insulate people from “offensive” speech or ideas, college students and other millennials are willing to strip others of a right that has buttressed every free society in the history of humankind — the right to say what one thinks without being punished by the state. This includes speech that is racist, misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic, offensive, and downright incendiary.
In other words, tolerating assholes is the price we pay for freedom of speech and free society. We can all think of numerous occasions where we would have loved nothing more than to shut someone up to prevent them from saying any more of the thing that was pissing us off at that moment. But who among us would actually like to see our personal preferences codified into law for all to follow? Who among us would dare say that we know constitutes speech and expression that’s unacceptable? I most certainly would not. And those who would? They betray the sort of extreme arrogance that characterizes the volatile transition from teenager to adult.
Since this is the first time Pew has asked this question, it’s difficult to know whether the desire for speech restrictions is endemic to millennials or whether it’s something that younger adults of all eras are inclined toward. Whatever the case, free speech is in jeopardy on campus. It is high time that the grown-ups step in and inform young people that this whole freedom of speech thing only works if everyone has it.