Trigger Warning: The First Amendment Matters

It’s becoming an all too frequent occurrence. Nearly every week now comes another news story about political correctness threatening free speech on college campuses. This week came news that two members of Bowdoin College’s student government face impeachment proceedings for…attending a party at which some guests wore tiny sombreros.

The birthday party debacle began with an invitation that read: “the theme is tequila, so do with that what you may. We’re not saying it’s a fiesta, but we’re also not saying that :).” According to the campus newspaper–The Bowdoin Orient–one student reported some of the attendees were wearing miniature sombreros at the party, and the campus PC police subsequently went nuts.

Catherine Rampell writes of the “incident” in the Washington Post:

[W]hen photos of attendees wearing those mini-sombreros showed up on social media, students and administrators went ballistic.

College administrators sent multiple schoolwide emails notifying the students about an “investigation” into a possible “act of ethnic stereotyping.”

Partygoers ultimately were reprimanded or placed on “social probation,” and the hosts have been kicked out of their dorm, according to friends.

What’s more, the General Assembly at Bowdoin issued a “Statement of Solidarity to stand by all students who were affected by the ‘tequila’ party that occurred on 20 February 2016.”

“The Assembly, representing the entire student body of Bowdoin, stands by all students who were injured and affected by the incident,” the statement reads.

Among the recommendations included in the statement are the creation of a safe space for “discussion, support and processing of the incident” and that “processes for punitive measures be undertaken against those involved in such incidents.”

Unfortunately, creating safe spaces for victims who were “injured” by a tequila parties is one of the more innocuous (albeit ridiculous) outcomes of the recent rise of political correctness in higher education. The problem is that tendency towards overinterpreting and overreacting to anything deemed remotely near the line of decency, as determined by an unaccountable group of unidentified students and administrators, extends into academic debate as well.

If students are afraid to throw a party featuring a tequila theme, imagine just how terrifying it must be to try and discuss truly divisive topics like police violence, Islamic terrorism, or the upcoming elections in a classroom. The chilling effect isn’t limited to students speaking up in class, it goes for teachers planning lessons.

“The ‘trigger warning,’ which forces teachers to change their teaching plans based on calculations about what topics might hurt students’ feelings ore make them feel ‘unsafe,” forces teachers into the work of affirming the narcissism of many privileged students,” writes DeWitt Godfrey, professor of art history at Colgate University. “It also buys into the notion that learning, study and education is a consumer experience, and that the consumers (the students) get to decide whether they like the goods on offer.”

Unfortunately, we as young adults, seem to be welcoming our PC overlords. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 40 percent of Millennials believe the government “should be able to prevent people from saying . . . statements that are offensive to minority groups.” Another survey, conducted by the Wall Street Journal, found that 51 percent favored speech codes.”

But who is capable of determining what is offensive? Who is omniscient enough to draft a speech code that logically fits within the First Amendment? Certainly not law students at the University of Missouri, which passed a speech code that required people to provide “positive and insightful commentary.” Or the Amherst student body, which called for a speech code that would have sanctioned students for putting up an “All Lives Matter” poster. Or the University of California, which has a handout that attempts to explain why saying, “America is the land of opportunity,” or expressing the idea of “color blindness,” are microaggressions.

No one is capable of drafting a policy that prevents offense, at least not one that doesn’t choke off speech in its entirety. And that’s exactly as it should be. Controversial ideas should be aired. Both sides should be debated. And if someone is clearly on the wrong side of an issue they should be loudly and passionately rebutted. But to preemptively shut them down or punish them after the fact doesn’t advance or strengthen good ideas, it merely atrophies our ability to use words–our most powerful weapons–to fight injustice and incite change.