How the free speech debate is affecting international students

Prohibiting hate speech might protect international students in the short run – but discrimination is a long game. Source:

Should minorities be protected on university campuses, or should everyone have the right to say whatever their hearts desire? This is the ongoing debate taking place in US colleges as the First Amendment clashes with student consensus.

It is an important topic for all students: whether universities should be places of safety and inclusiveness or places of open debate and uncensored discussion.

But how international students are likely to be impacted by any decisions made on free speech is often left out of the discussion.

The most obvious consideration is that international students will almost undoubtedly be a minority during their degree.

Because of this, they are more likely to be the victims of discrimination on campus and marginalized by any hate speech that is currently protected under the First Amendment. They are the most likely to benefit from ‘safe spaces’ – environments where groups are protected from discrimination, criticism and harassment – and the most vulnerable outside of them.

Opposers often reject ‘safe-space culture’ with the argument ‘the world is not a safe space’.

Free speech is a fact of life in the US, as defended by the First Amendment. While universities can somewhat limit free speech by creating ‘safe spaces’, the outside world will not be under such restrictions.

By wrapping international students in censored language bubblewrap, universities are only shielding them from harm and stripping them of the opportunity to build their strength, rather than disarming the attackers.

For real social changes to be made, we should not only deflect offensive views away from the vulnerable but actually dissolve the opinions themselves through discussion and collaboration. 

This means racist students must say racist things, sexist students must say sexist things, and people will be offended.

Unless light is shone on discrimination and prejudices, it will continue to lurk in the shadows and likely infect international students without anyone even realizing. 

Prejudices will not be removed just because someone isn’t allowed to express them. They will continue to fester unchallenged and while hate speech may be limited, hate actions and hate thoughts will poisonously spread.

Limiting free speech in favor of promoting inclusivity creates a danger of entrenching hate into deeper, darker parts of society.

Rather than sweeping up negativity and changing it into progress, safe spaces risk shoving the problematic views far under the bed. And, just like that childhood toy you thought you had lost, they will eventually resurface later, when international students feel they have been accepted into society – only to find they were just accepted into the safe space of their campus.

Of course, many international students come from societies where, unlike in the US, people are censored in what they see, think and say. 

The Chinese Communist Party, as the most extreme example, censors search engines, and many Southeast Asian countries join China in censoring films, websites, books and publications.

Studying in the US is the first taste of expressive freedom many students have ever experienced. Porn is accessible with a Google search, the media is free in what it publishes, and anyone can openly criticise the government without fear of arrest.

Living in this more liberal environment can have powerful effects on citizens of censorship. Chinese students were recently inspired to rise against the Communist party’s leader Xi Jinping’s indefinite reign, for example.

Chinese students studying abroad are protesting against Xi Jinping for the first time. Source: @yinfantakes/Instagram

“We’re in Western countries where free speech is protected and we think we’re morally obliged to do something, stand up and speak for our people,” a student involved in the movement in Australia told Hacka current affairs radio show by the ABC-owned station Triple J.

If free speech is limited through safe-space culture, students from corrupted countries won’t have anywhere left to go to speak for themselves and others who are being controlled.

Limiting free speech in favor of protecting the vulnerable is by far the quickest path to omitting racist attacks from university campuses. But it doesn’t tackle racist thoughts or otherwise racist behaviors.

Instead, the issue needs to be stared at in the eyes, questioned, debated and discussed in the hope that one-day prejudices will be overcome for good.

  • *The views expressed in this article do not reflect the views of Study International

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