When free speech turns offensive

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By Shianna Gibbons

Universities and colleges are melting pots for people with different backgrounds, hobbies, beliefs, morals and goals. This allows for exchanging different ideas, but when those ideas are offensive or harmful to some, it may be valuable to know how to respond.

Universities and colleges follow state rules regarding the First Amendment’s protection of free speech, expression, thought and assembly. Youngstown State University’s campus free speech policy (3356-4-21), protects this right and defines some guidelines. 

Free speech and expression are common values found in the marketplace of ideas. This philosophical concept encourages expressing ideas and civil engagement with others about different or competing ideas.

Alan Tomhave, YSU philosophy professor and chair of humanities and social sciences, said campuses allow the marketplace of ideas to occur in two ways.

“[First], universities and colleges allow for ideas to be put out there and discussed by students and faculty and their justifications,” Tomhave said. “[Second] is that universities and colleges produce new ideas. They engage in discussions on new and developing topics.”

The marketplace of ideas depends on the principle that people will engage civilly and be receptive to other ideas.

“The rules that are suggested is that there is respectful dialogue. We should be engaging in civil discourse,” Tomhave said. “Another rule is to look at the ideas and the justifications for those ideas. Whatever the justifications are, is where the back and forth discussion takes place.”

While civil discourse is the goal, this can be harder to accomplish when discussing controversial topics. Joy Tang, associate professor in psychological sciences and counseling, said this could be attributed to identity and politics.

“Controversial topics, especially those pertaining to politics and culture, are deeply ingrained in our identity,” Tang said. “When we voice an opposing view, we might be attacked not only on the opinion, but also on who we are as people. This makes these topics difficult to discuss.”

If the discussion turns sour or if someone is behaving antagonistically, Tang said there are a few ways to go about the situation.

“Hear them out, let them know you are listening to what they are saying. Often, people do not feel like they’re being heard, and this leads to more intense discussions,” Tang said.

However, Tang said this is not always the case.

 “If that person is perpetually aggressive, it may not be the time to engage with that person. Also, it is important to self-reflect on our responses,” Tang said.

Nicole Kent-Strollo, dean of students and ombudsperson, said students who feel offended or possibly triggered by something they see or hear on campus have a few options.

“[First], remove yourself from the situation the best you can,” Kent-Strollo said. “Then we want people to be able to reach out to us. Then we can give them guidance or go forward with different options and allow us to help them the best we can.”

Rose McClurkin, a sophomore majoring in political science who works tables for Planned Parenthood Generation Action, said civil engagement and education is the goal.

“We have a lot of demonstrations and tabling on campus. We want people to learn, we want to engage people in a productive way, and it is important to be kind to everyone,” McClurkin said.

McClurkin said being respectful in every situation is essential. 

“The YSU app seems to be like the most toxic social media site,” McClurkin said. “Being nice and respectful to each other [is important] because the conversations and compromises are never going to be made if we cannot make contact with each other in the hallways.”

The free speech policy on campus is extended to social media sites such as the YSU app. Students have used this space to discuss campus activities and debated issues such as the mask policy and abortion protests, but the conversation is not always civil.

Tang said there is a psychological theory called individuation that occurs when we have online discussions instead of in-person discussions.

“Individuation is the idea that people feel like their personal identity is removed. They feel that the regular constraints on moral behavior [are] removed as well,” Tang said. “In online situations, we feel like we are not going to be held accountable, and that gives some incentive to be antagonistic as much as they wish.”

Kent-Strollo said her office’s goal is to be proactive in reaching out to students when they feel distressed.

“We have staff that monitors the app to look out for students. If a student seems to be targeted or expresses that they are clearly hurting, we reach out to them,” Kent-Strollo said. “It is never about censoring anything, but it is about looking out for people on our campus.”