Free speech and the 'weaponization' of political correctness

Freedom of speech has been guaranteed to Americans since the adoption of the Bill of Rights.

However, what kind of speech falls under this amendment is the subject of constant debate. Today, university campuses have become involved in initiatives for "safe spaces" and mandated civility in the fight against racist and otherwise intolerant rhetoric — raising questions about academic freedom for students, the changing dynamic of campus debate and what people are allowed to say without fear of legal repercussions.

"I do believe that college students do deserve a physically safe space, where they don't feel physically threatened on campus," said Fox News contributor Guy Benson during a discussion at the University of Minnesota Humphrey School on Feb. 7, which recently aired on MPR News.

And while Benson says he sees value in trigger warnings and checking privilege as tools for engaging in informed and civil discourse, he worries that the overuse of these devices will silence certain groups completely.

"I think what we've seen is the weaponization of political correctness where people want to actually punish others for having viewpoints that make them feel uncomfortable," said Benson. "I think a safe space should apply to physical safety. It should not apply to emotional safety."

Instead of trying to restrict or penalize people for speech that is considered unpopular, the best response to speech you do not agree with is more speech, Benson said, pointing to a local example.

Last year, a mural stating "Build the Wall" painted by a College Republicans group at the U of M was met with student complaints, vandalism of the mural and administrative discussion over possible punishment for the group.

In Benson's opinion, expressing the strong arguments that already exist against building a border wall or halting immigration would have been far more productive than trying to make it against the rules to paint that message.

"I don't think that someone feeling even physically uncomfortable by seeing a slogan that they don't like is enough, is nearly sufficient to limit speech," he said.

Benson was joined in the discussion by Jane Kirtley, the U of M's Silha professor of media ethics and law.

The two went on to discuss the nature of President Trump's speech, his anti-press tendencies and how people can better engage in discourse and move towards understanding by searching out and being open to different opinions while avoiding "fake news."

To listen to their discussion, click the audio player above.

Further reading

• Content notice: Here are a few ways professors use trigger warnings

• Discussion: Are 'trigger warnings' dumbing down college?

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