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Tolerance & Censorship on College Campuses



First, I would like to make it very clear that I believe every student should feel safe in their academic environment. I do not intend to discredit the various movements for inclusiveness happening at colleges across the country, or discount the oppression that any student currently feels or has felt in the past. I do not claim to be in any position to say how someone has or has not been affected by attacks on their identity, no matter how subtle, perpetuated by the culture of college campuses, their peers, or society as a whole. That being said, I think that encouraging tolerance on college campuses can in fact cross the line and infringe on peoples first amendment rights. Studies done over the past six decades have repeatedly shown that people are more likely to support free speech when described in abstract terms, but when given specific scenarios, their support for free speech decreases. The problem with that is that the first amendment should be applied in all scenarios in which the speech is protected.

At Wesleyan University, a known liberal campus, students were outraged at an opinion piece published in the school newspaper that criticized some of the tactics, related to the Black Lives Matter movement. The article did not comment on the motivations of the movement. The paper issued an apology after so many people were upset and pledged to provide a “safe space for students of color on campus” but students started a petition and the entire newspaper was ultimately shut down. At Amherst college, students made a list of demands for the school administrators that included punishing students who expressed dissenting opinions- for example, holding signs that said “all lives matter” and that the schools honor code be rewritten to include a zero-tolerance policy for racial insensitivities. If there is anything I’ve learned as a criminal justice student, its that zero tolerance policies can do more harm than good. At a University in California the board of Regents considered implementing a “tolerance policy”. The idea is that students should be “free from acts and expressions of intolerance” while yes, that would be great-universities should not control what their students and faculty say. Nobody should be afraid to speak their mind or express their opinions. Students should not be guaranteed the right to not be offended.

I think these examples illustrate when the demand for tolerance becomes a demand for censorship. Implementing speech codes or tolerance policies, are not the answer. The American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, has long protected the rights of free speech, even in defense of bigotry, racism, sexism and homophobia because “free speech rights are indivisible…the same laws or regulations used to silence bigots can be used to silence you”. The ACLU has also spoken specifically against the use of free speech codes on college campuses stating that they “have proven ineffective at best and counter-productive at worst”. Historically, speech codes have even been used against the people they are intended to protect. imageedit_2144_6694143902

My argument is not against the substance of the protests or the beliefs behind the demands of speech codes and tolerance policies. Nor is my intent to tell people how they should or should not express their beliefs or feelings or further oppress those who are actively speaking out against such oppression. But, in the interest of social change, which I do believe to be the ultimate goal of such protests, there needs to be open debate. As Connor Freidendorf, writer for The Atlantic articulates:

how can one fully understand student activists without attentively listening and then engaging in conversation and, where there is disagreement or lack of clarity, debate? Without a culture of free speech there cannot be constructive dialogue.

This is by no means implying that the burden to engage in debate or encourage public discourse should be put solely on the groups who are protesting. Instead, I believe this is where university administrators should step in. That being said, I do not believe any argument is well-served by attempts to punish or completely block dissenting viewpoints.

I agree with the Supreme Courts’ sentiment that “the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate’”. Students of all backgrounds, beliefs, identities and viewpoints should have the freedom to speak their mind and engage in healthy debate and critical thought without facing censorship or oppression. Not only is this the nature of higher learning but it is the more effective method for ensuring long term social change. As supported by cultural cognition, misperceptions of facts surrounding free speech are normal to human cognition
but they should not drive policy. Universities can foster an environment of respect and tolerance by raising awareness, promoting dialogue and speaking against discrimination and bigotry without taking away anyone’s rights. Finally, securing and supporting the right to free speech by speaking against the implementation of speech codes or tolerance policies does not inhibit the discourse on inclusion or marginalization but instead vital too it; “speech codes don’t really serve the interests of persecuted groups. The First Amendment does”.

Domestic Terrorism: Implications of a Label

Disclaimer: I pose a number of open-ended questions throughout this post, but I have included my main discussion questions at the end.

In light of recent events, I think it is important we take the time to discuss the concept of domestic terrorism and the roles that race, religion, ethnocentrism and media coverage play in forming public perception. Domestic terrorism is defined separately from International terrorism, according to the FBI:

“‘Domestic terrorism’ means activities with the following three characteristics:

 1. Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;

2. Appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination. or kidnapping; and

3. Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.” (

The ambiguity of this definition lies in the skillful use of the word “intended.” Intent can be incredibly hard to prove, it leaves a lot of room for interpretation on behalf of the FBI, the government, and the media. It leaves the incredibly popular “mental health” loophole available. But, that loophole only seems to apply white men who carry out mass shootings. When the media puts the focus on not knowing the intent is when they use race to fill in the story, as demonstrated by the responses to the attack at Planned Parenthood. Additionally, whether or not the assailants “intent” was to specifically influence government policy, the recent shootings have brought the topic of gun control to the forefront of debates that have major implications for future legislation. In that respect, should the intent really matter?

Hopefully at this point everyone is familiar with the shooting that occurred last Friday at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado in which three people were killed and nine were wounded.(Broomfield, Brown & Simon, 2015). The following is an alert from the New York Times that popped up on my phone on Tuesday: “Special Report: The suspect in the Colorado rampage was a recluse who longed for women, and mixed religion with rage.” (Faussett, 2015).They describe him as an outcast, of course we would not want to associate him with all Christians… he was just a random fanatic with an anger problem. I find it incredibly hard to believe that if Robert Lewis Dear was not white or christian, the media would be as hesitant to call it domestic terrorism. The media would hear “anti-government” and run with it.

What I find particularly fascinating is a news story published by the FBI on their website in September of 2009 titled Domestic Terrorism: In the Post 9/11 Era. Here is a short excerpt from the article:

“One particularly insidious concern that touches all forms of domestic extremism is the lone offender—a single individual driven to hateful attacks based on a particular set of beliefs without a larger group’s knowledge or support…We believe most domestic attacks are carried out by lone offenders to promote their own grievances and agendas.” (

Does this not describe Robert Lewis Dear? In 2009 the FBI openly acknowledged that lone offenders could not only be considered domestic extremism or terrorism but was a particularly insidious threat. Does this not include those who carry out these mass shootings and massacres? Even still, the majority of the american public would not acknowledge that threat of lone offenders could apply to races or religions besides white people or christians, the majority response to the refugee crisis makes that very clear. Here is what CNN had to say about the recent planned parenthood shooting: “Dear, 57, told them he has anti-abortion and anti-government views, but that doesn’t mean those opinions were his motive for allegedly shooting up the Colorado Springs clinic on Friday, the official said. It’s too early to tell, as investigators are still processing evidence” (Broomfield et. al, 2015).

As I’m writing this I am listening to live coverage on CNN about the massacre that occurred today. Fourteen people were killed today in San Bernadino, California when as many as three men and women opened fire at a center for people with disabilities. In the broadcast, one of the men on Anderson Coopers panel, (which included Art Roderick, a CNN law enforcement analyst; Lenny Depaul, a member of the US marshall fugitive task force for New jersey and New York; Chris Swecker, former assistant director for the FBI; and Harry Hauck, a former NYPD detective) said the following:

“I will say that we oughta get our terminology straight here, just because it happened domestically doesn’t make it domestic terrorism. 9/11 was an attack on US soil, so was World Trade Center one. If it is internationally inspired, if there is some international inspiration or facilitation that turns it in to international terrorism so I think have to keep an open mind…”

To which Anderson Cooper agreed. The only difference between the FBI definitions for international and domestic terrorism is the final characteristic, for something to be International terrorism it must “Occur primarily outside the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S., or transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to intimidate or coerce, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate or seek asylum.”( So even when we have a perpetrator from a recent shooting confirm his anti-government sentiments, it is too soon to tell if it can be considered domestic terrorism. But when there is an ongoing situation that we know was weaponized, calculated and fatal, we still cannot consider it domestic terrorism, but we should also keep in mind that international terrorism is a totally viable option. I’m really not sure I understand the logic there. Today, multiple men and women wearing tactical gear who were in possession of assault rifles, handguns and pipe bombs entered a building and opened fire on innocent people, very possibly people with disabilities. If that is not an act of terrorism, I don’t know what is.

Q1: Do you think the recent shootings/attacks should be considered domestic terrorism? Does it fit within the FBI’s definition? If not, should the FBI’s definition be more widely applied?

Q2: Are there benefits to not labeling these shootings as domestic terrorism?

Q3: What roles do religion and race play in the media coverage of attacks like these?

Q4: With one of the perpetrators of the San Bernardino shootings being a women, do you think gender will influence media coverage in the coming days?

Q5: Do you think domestic terrorism events instill as much fear in the american public as international terrorism?

Q6: We recently discussed some of the pros and cons of militarization of the police here in the US. If American media and society started to classify these attacks as domestic terrorist attacks, what sort of policy/legal implications would that have, if any?



Broomfield, B., Brown, P., & Simon, D. (2015, November 29). Source: Colorado shooting suspect spoke of ‘baby parts’ – Retrieved December 3, 2015, from

In the Post-9/11 Era. (2009, September 7). Retrieved December 3, 2015, from

Fausset, R. (2015, December 1). For Robert Dear, Religion and Rage Before Planned Parenthood Attack. Retrieved December 3, 2015, from

San Bernardino Live Coverage [Television series episode]. (2015, December 3). In 360 with Anderson Cooper. New York City: Anderson Cooper.