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College Campuses Become Focus of Debate Over What Constitutes Free Speech

November 2, 2023

College Campuses Become Focus of Debate Over What Constitutes Free Speech

Ask students: How do students describe attempts to shut down some campus speakers in this story? How do you think college administrations should best foster a climate of free speech and student safety?


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Since the attack by Hamas and Israel’s ongoing response, there have been bitter debates on many college campuses over which side bears responsibility. This plays into already raging debates at many schools over free speech and academic freedom. Judy Woodruff visited four colleges to understand how this fits into the nation's political divide. It's part of her series, America at a Crossroads.

For a transcript, click here.

Remote video URL

Time codes

0:00 – 2:44: Introduction to free speech debates on campus

2:45 – 4:53: Polling suggests that many students are comfortable with using confrontation to shut down some speakers on campus

4:54 – 6:32: Conservative Ilya Shapiro on being investigated by school administration for social media post

6:33 – 8:59: Profile of American University and program to encourage dialogue and disagreement

9:00 – 13:13: Profile of New College of Florida, law banning some course content and attempts to remake school by governor's administration

News wrap alternative: Check out recent segments from the NewsHour, and choose the story you’re most interested in watching. You can make a Google doc copy of discussion questions that work for any of the stories here.

Discussion Questions

Warm up questions

  • Who are some of the people profiled in this story?
  • How do students describe attempts to shout down some campus speakers in this story?
  • Why did Ilya Shapiro resign from his job at Georgetown Law School?
  • What is Florida law SB 266, and what restrictions does it impose on college subjects?
  • Where is New College, and why was it profiled in this story?

Focus questions

  • What example stood out to you in this story the most?
  • How do you think college administrations should best foster a climate of free speech and student safety?
  • One student in this story, Rebecca Sparacio, says "I do think it's important to hear all of these views [including racist and sexist views], because when you are out in the real world, I think you hear people discussing things that are not for the good of society. And you have to learn how to react." Do you agree with Sparacio? Why or why not?

Media literacy: This story mentions a number of states that are imposing restrictions on what can be taught at public universities. Where can you go to find out more about those restrictions? Is your school impacted?

Alternative: See, Think, Wonder: What did you notice? What did the story make you think? What story would you want to find out more about? Where would you go to learn more?

For more

What students can do: Read the following article about threats on campus amidst the Israel-Hamas conflict and discuss as a class — what obligations do campuses have to protect students from threatening speech? What should campus administrations do to encourage dialogue and free speech at a time when both Jewish and Muslim students, among others, might feel unsafe?

Threats to Jewish Cornell University students in online discussion board provoke police investigation

Republished with permission from PBS NewsHour Classroom.

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