Freedom of speech is a fundamental right strongly protected by the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the free of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." It essentially guarantees one’s right to freely express opinions and ideas through direct (words) and symbolic (actions) methods, without fear of prohibition.

In the past year many colleges and universities hosted controversial speakers that have sparked outrage within their communities. Students argued for more “safe spaces” on their college campuses. Interestingly, “safe space” was a term originally used to describe safe environments for students within an institution, where students condemned anti-LGBTQ violence, harassment or hate speech. Nowadays, the meaning of “safe space” has expanded to include places for marginalized students to come together. With colleges and universities creating safe spaces on campuses, debate ensues whether this tramples on the right of free speech.

Van Jones, former adviser to former President Barack Obama, spoke at the University of Chicago and believed the modern interpretation of a “safe space," one that protects students ideologically and emotionally, is considered to be harmful and contradictory of attending a college or university. He argues, 

“You can’t live on a campus where people say stuff you don’t like? [...] You are creating a kind of liberalism that the minute it crosses the street into the real world is not just useless but obnoxious and dangerous. I want you to be offended every single day on this campus. I want you to be deeply aggrieved and offended and upset and then to learn how to speak back.”

Former President Barack Obama gave a speech in 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa, and encouraged his audience to accept diverse opinions:

“Look, the purpose of college is not just, as I said before, to transmit skills. It’s also to widen your horizons; to make you a better citizen; to help you to evaluate information; to help you make your way through to world; to help you be more creative. The way to do that is to create a space where a lot of ideas are presented and collide, and people are having arguments, and people are testing each other’s theories, and over time, people learn from each other, because they’re getting out of their own narrow point of view and having a broader point of view.”

Below is a list of five controversial college speakers.

1. Charles Murray

Many protests erupted on Middlebury College’s campus during the first week of March. A conservative student group had invited Murray to speak on March 2nd. About 100 to 150 students shouted down Mr. Murray during his talk, and eventually had to be moved to another room to finish it. Later on, masked protesters continued to push and shove Mr. Murray and the college faculty interviewer, Allison Stanger, who suffered a concussion. In May, Middlebury College issued sanctions against 67 students.

He is best known for “The Bell Curve," published in 1994, that controversially linked intelligence to class and race in modern society.

2. Milo Yiannopoulos

Students at University of California-Berkeley organized protests in response to a scheduled speech which soon turned violent. Protesters set fire to generators and trees, broke glass windows, and faced tear gas and rubber bullets from the police. The speech was later cancelled due to the violent protests that ensued.

Yiannopoulos was a former senior editor for Breitbart News and associated politically with the alt-right. After videos of him emerged that implied he condoned pedophilia in February, his book deal with Simon & Schuster was canceled and he was disinvited to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

3. Gavin McInnes

In February at New York University, McInnes spoke for barely three minutes before continued interruption forced him to end his talk. The NYPD had to intervene after riots broke out on the streets and McInnes was pepper sprayed.

McInnes is a conservative writer and co-founder of Vice Media and Vice Magazine. He took a leave of absence from his own ad agency, Rooster, after writing a transphobic article titled, “Transphobia Is Perfectly Natural.”

4. Betsy DeVos

In early September, the University of Baltimore announced the fall commencement speaker would be Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. A few days later a petition against DeVos as the speaker collected over 3,000 signatures and students organized a school walkout and rally in protest.

DeVos previously garnered attention as a controversial speaker when she delivered a commencement speech to graduates at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida in May. Her speech was met with an echo of boos. More recently, protesters failed to shut down her speech at Harvard University. According to Frederick M. Hess and Grant Addison of The National Review, Devos gave her "best speech yet" at Harvard, but students were more concerned with their antics than listening scholarly and later engaging Devos with back and forth discourse.

Devos remains a controversial figure in regards to education reform. She has been praised for her focus on charter schools and innovation, but in turn this has generated heated criticism for her lack of support for traditional public education. 

5. Ben Shapiro

In February 2016, Shapiro was invited by Young America's Foundation to speak at Cal State Los Angeles. College president William Covino canceled the speech due to students expressing concern of the ideas Shapiro upheld. Although his appearance was canceled, Shapiro showed up anyway and was soon safely escorted out by police after clashes with angry student demonstrators.

Shapiro is a conservative commentator and editor in chief of He is an author of several books including Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear and Intimidation Silences Americans.

Although student demonstrations pay tribute to the First Amendment and are a means of  solidarity and empowerment, it is certainly alarming that speakers are unable to express their beliefs and ideas on campus, no matter how controversial they may be. Regardless of the speakers’ views, they also retain the right to say what they want on any subject. Many, like Jones and Obama, agree that while students may not embrace speakers that hold differing or offensive opinions, students should accept the speakers’ right to freely speak. By limiting themselves to “safe spaces" their constructed bubbles restrict the flow of diverse opinions and are a subtle form of censorship that forces speeches and talks to be shut down due to students disagreeing ideologically and emotionally. In effect, students who continue to shield themselves from ideologically diverse ideas may deepen the divide between the left and right. The so-called “safe spaces” have transformed themselves into ideological shelters, rather than become effective and beneficial agents to an academic setting.

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