From its embryonic stage during the civil rights era to its modern-day presence on college campuses, the political correctness movement has undergone an extreme metamorphosis. In the university setting, it was originally intended to welcome diverse views by encouraging minority students to feel part of the learning environment and to contribute to the “marketplace of ideas.” Recently, however, as students more frequently demand trigger warnings and safe spaces in response to speech that they deem personally offensive, the use of political correctness measures on college campuses has had the unintended consequence of chilling speech. Contrary to longstanding First Amendment principles, college campuses are becoming environments in which the most vulnerable among the student population can exercise a “heckler’s veto,” silencing speech that is subjectively offensive to the most sensitive students.
During the 2016 presidential election, Trump supporters praised his unfiltered campaign rhetoric and divisive Tweets while others condemned them, criticizing his unscripted approach as offensive in the name of political correctness. The contrast between Trump supporters’ chants of “lock her up” at rallies and college students’ demands for safe spaces and trigger warnings is noteworthy; these diverse groups fall at the opposite ends of a speech-tolerance spectrum. On the one end of the spectrum, political correctness is shunned; on the other end, it is demanded.
In debunking the purported justifications for the use of extreme political correctness measures on college campuses, this Article adds to the ongoing discussion of the changing landscape of privately imposed speech rules for public discourse and posits that both ends of the speech tolerance spectrum reflect a form of speech narcissism. The new normal in speech rights has abandoned the central meaning of the First Amendment—the freedom to engage in “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open” debate on matters of public concern. The “my way or the highway” approach to public discourse is the antithesis of the free speech principles thought essential to secure liberty and democracy.
In response to this trend, state legislatures are passing Freedom of Speech statutes that safeguard speech in the classroom and on the quad. While these laws are a positive step toward countering the negative effects of political correctness, this Article suggests that speech offensiveness is a matter of ethics and education that cannot be remedied solely by law. “True grit” and compassion training are necessary antidotes to the thin-skinned, speech-averse students who demonstrate zero tolerance for any expression that is personally offensive.