Trump wants free speech back on campus, but did it ever leave?

It could be a meme at this point: someone wagging their finger at college students, complaining that free speech is dying on college campuses.

Or, actually, you can just take a peek at one of Donald Trump’s speeches.

“In the past few decades, political correctness… Has transformed our institutions of higher education from ones that fostered spirited debate to a place of extreme censorship,” Trump said in a speech in Ohio on Oct. 13. “We will end the political correctness and foster free and respectful dialogue.”.

And he’s not alone. Many people, ranging from Twitter users posting #LiberalPrivilege tweets to Milo Yiannopoulos fans and prominent conservatives like Tomi Lahren all fear that free speech is being threatened on college campuses.

And many have mocked the concepts of safe spaces, trigger warnings and microaggressions, claiming that these concepts run counter to the First Amendment and are turning U.S. Campuses into nursery schools where emotionally fragile “snowflakes” demand to be protected from anything they may find remotely offensive or upsetting and where political correctness is the rule.

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But is free speech really under attack — or even dead — on U.S. Campuses? A new report from PEN America on free speech and related topics like microaggressions, safe spaces and trigger warnings says … Not really.

“A rising generation may be turning against free speech,” reads the report. “While free speech is alive and well on campus, it is not free from threats, and must be vigilantly guarded if its continued strength is to be assured.”.

The report, titled “And Campus for All: Diversity, Inclusion and Freedom of Speech at U.S. Universities,” recommends that institutions not discipline students for legally protected speech.

And what about microaggressions — defined by Columbia University psychologist Derald Wing Sue as one of the “everyday insults, indignities and demeaning messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned white people who are unaware of the hidden messages”? The PEN report says increasingly diverse college populations require “wider conscientiousness of how words are understood by different groups of listeners,” and university administrators should encourage students to be sensitive as to how their words might hurt others.

But policies regulating everyday speech, PEN America says, “are intrusive and run the risk of prohibiting or even simply disfavoring permissible speech.”.

In other words, free speech on campus should be vigorously protected, but greater sensitivity is still warranted.

PEN America also recommends that campus speaker invitations be withdrawn only in the most extreme situations and that students be permitted to protest speakers they object to. It also suggests that universities allow — but not require — faculty and students to include trigger warnings and use safe spaces.

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Michael Schramm is a student at University of Michigan and a USA TODAY College lead digital producer.

This story originally appeared on the USA TODAY College blog, a news source produced for college students by student journalists. The blog closed in September of 2017.

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