In the spring of 2023, conservative writer and speaker Ian Haworth showed up at University at Albany – State University of New York as part of a program sponsored by a student group called Turning Point USA. He planned to make provocative statements about trans people that students rightfully interpreted to be transphobic. Protestors arrived to disrupt the event. Conservatives then turned around and publicized the event as a violation of their freedom to speak. Haworth himself posted video of the event on his Twitter account.

And in the following three weeks, three other campuses, including my own, endured similar events.

Indeed, the debate over free speech has been intensifying in colleges and universities across the nation. And, in this current political climate as universities have begun to weigh in on tragic events internationally, institutions have begun to feel increased activity around free speech as well as academic freedom and have faced their attending consequences.

Though students support freedom of expression, they are often deeply upset by conservative speakers who come to their campus. They see the speech as hateful or hurtful and believe that the administration should disallow speech that is personally violent to them. While a transphobic speaker would be offensive to many administrators, public universities in particular must continue to uphold their right to speak on campus.

Indeed, how slippery would the slope become if campuses started censoring speech depending on its level of offensiveness and to whom?

Conservative speakers on the other hand deliberately seek out “liberal” universities, in hopes of drawing out students to respond vociferously or violently in opposition to them. These recorded encounters are then posted on the Web, which then garners even more support for the conservative group, as viewers watch with horror recordings of seeming crazed and unruly young people. Students who speak out are often then doxxed, their personal information shared widely on the Web for the larger public to then cyberbully or stalk the student. This becomes an additional act of intimidation in which students become too frightened to open their e-mail or leave their home to come to class.

A university campus should ideally serve as a kitchen cupboard of diverse thoughts without fear of being doxxed. Rajendra Prasad of Delhi University noted, “university is a place where we confront ideas, not people.”

Students especially should be able to engage in opposing ideologies and learn how to be inquisitive rather than reactive or suspicious of things that seem alien. For myself, the classroom has been an incredibly transformative space, as both a student and a faculty member. In the 1990s a women’s history class in college upended how I saw the role of women and gender in U.S. history. Later in the early 2000s as I began teaching, one student who came to my office hours started tearing up after realizing that gender was socially constructed. As disturbing as it was for her, the interchange was also eye-opening for me. How is it that a 19-year-old Asian American could be so emotionally invested in a universal gender binary that its deconstruction would literally drive her to tears?

Yet in an era increasingly driven by viral videos, “likes” and algorithms selecting your content, space for affirmation seems to continuously expand, while rooms for respectful disagreement shrink. For myself too, I keep things that could attract unwanted attention strictly in the classroom where conversations and questions can still be uncomfortable, but mediated respectfully. Perhaps these times are an apt reminder of how it’s best for all parties to come to any table with what Buddhist philosopher Shunryu Suzuki called a “Beginner’s Mind,” an openness to grapple with any topic as would a “beginner” learning new ways of doing or being.

Nichi Bei News columnist Amy Sueyoshi is provost and vice president of Academic Affairs at San Francisco State University., where she previously was the dean of the College of Ethnic Studies. She holds a Ph.D. in history from UCLA and has authored two books titled “Queer Compulsions” and “Discriminating Sex.” She is also the founding co-curator of the GLBT History Museum in San Francisco. She can be reached at sueyoshi@sfsu.edu. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei News.

Nichi Bei News columnist Amy Sueyoshi is provost and vice president of Academic Affairs at San Francisco State University., where she previously was the dean of the College of Ethnic Studies. She holds a Ph.D. in history from UCLA and has authored two books titled “Queer Compulsions” and “Discriminating Sex.” She is also the founding co-curator of the GLBT History Museum in San Francisco. She can be reached at sueyoshi@sfsu.edu. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei News.

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