Free speech and college campuses: it’s complicated

Photo Courtesy Of | Katherine Hazen ’18 gives her take on free speech and college campuses.


Katherine Hazen ’18

Free speech on campus is undoubtedly one of today’s hot-button issues. With protests of conservative speakers reaching from Middlebury to Berkeley, pundits and opinions pieces from outlets across the spectrum bemoan our safe spaces and trigger warnings.

College campuses have become far more diverse in the past few decades, and as such identity politics has become standard on many campuses. For those who have not stepped on a campus in the meantime, the reign of identity politics seems strange and for some, almost incomprehensible. And as critical conversations about race, gender and sexuality often don’t happen until college, those who can’t access higher education are left out of these conversations entirely.

What I find most frustrating about the mere discussion of this topic is the habit of pundits to clump together all these concepts and terms (i.e. trigger warnings, safe spaces, etc.) to describe a culture they cannot understand.

The week after I was raped at Amherst as a first-year, James Miller — yes, the James Miller — used a trigger warning before talking about legalized prostitution and rape. He was still able to speak, but I was also able to avoid a panic attack.

While pundits may not get the story quite right, the tendency to tune out or even shut down opinions slightly right of center (or anywhere near the center, really) still exists and is quite strong at Smith.

My colleague writes that Berkeley, the home of the Free Speech Movement, is giving in to “anarchists” by cancelling both speaking engagements of Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos.

Is Ann Coulter incredibly annoying? Of course. Should she have spoken? Unfortunately, yes.

In my year off-campus in both Washington and Geneva, working for both communications teams in the White House and the International Organization for Migration, I’ve come to appreciate that if you truly want to change the world, you’re going to have to understand precisely what the other side thinks, engage and debate with them. And a lot of people beyond the Grecourt Gates have disagreeable, often misinformed and sometimes genuinely harmful opinions. But shutting down these speakers does not weaken Ann Coulter’s influence — in fact, it makes it only that much stronger among conservatives.

Last year when the Bipartisan Coalition hosted Star Parker, I was really impressed with the poise and debate Smith students offered Parker in the Q&A session, especially after she had just accused our college of hiding the eugenic ideas of Margaret Sanger in our archives. There is a great value in having these events, even if we’re all settled on our own opinions.   

However, I verge from my fellow editor in the case of Milo Yiannopoulos, indisputably one of the most irritating humans alive, as it was known that he had planned to out undocumented students at Berkeley, just as he had outed a transgender student when speaking at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The university is well within its right to cancel an event that is genuinely harmful to students. The right to free speech is not an absolute one — just like yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre is unacceptable, yelling “free speech” does not give shroud to harass and intimidate vulnerable students and spout misinformation.

Free speech is complicated, so let’s talk about it.     


  1. Darleen Melis says:

    Katherine – I like your nuanced presentation of the discussion. I was wondering if I could ask about any Sophian coverage of the riding barn closure? Any chance to talk by phone? My number is: 978-744-6471. Thanks – Darleen Melis, Class of 1973

  2. Man with the Axe says:

    Don’t want to hear Milo or Ann Coulter speak? Don’t attend. That way you won’t be in any danger.

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