Rider students commend university for efforts to practice inclusivity and free speech

By Emily Kim and Allison Polhemus

An overwhelming majority of students at Rider University feel that it is important to be exposed to all types of speech regardless of whether they find it offensive or biased and are parallel with the national average of college students on their views of free speech relating to gender on college campuses. Just 26% of Rider students feel that it is more important for the university to protect its students by prohibiting hate speech on its campus altogether. 

According to an anonymous survey of 395 Rider students, 74% of the students, including junior secondary education and history major Danny Hamlin, said he feels that “it is vitally important that every person be exposed to all different types of opinions. … a person must learn to think critically about what they are hearing and recognize why that person says the things that they say.” 

When asked whether he feels it is important for citizens’ free speech rights to be recognized in democracy, Hamlin said, “free speech is the most important right we have. It challenges what we think and allows for civil debate … By allowing people to speak freely, it becomes a melting pot of civic ideas and ensures that great ideas for change and freedom are brought to light.”

Nationwide, by comparison, 22% of college students said they believe that schools should protect their students from offensive speech, and 59% said they believe it is more important to allow students to be exposed to all speech, according to Knight Foundation research which determined that male students were more likely to support a college that allows all types of speech whereas female students preferred a college that protects them from offensive speech.

Conversely, however, Hamlin expressed worry about the current state of free speech in today’s American society. “Both sides of the spectrum have become so hostile and close-minded to anything that challenges their beliefs,” Hamlin said. “The left is very prone to canceling ideas if they aren’t aligned with their beliefs. … they are very dogmatic and stuck in their ways.”

Junior global supply chain management major Brandon Rios agrees with many other Rider students that free speech should be more widely accepted. 

“Bottom line, like we all choose to come here, and people choose to express their feelings; however, … not everyone has the same mentality and ideas, so what might be unacceptable to one person, might be acceptable to another,” Rios said.

Senior graphic design major Morgan Schimek and junior communication studies major Andrew Coates are part of the minority that believes colleges should protect their students from offensive language.

Coates, along with 19% of males in Rider’s population, said they believe that not all speech should be permitted. Schimek, similarly, is part of 29% of women, along with 27% of nonbinary students, at Rider who desires protection against offensive language.

Additionally, freshman business administration and sports management major Jeffrey Kuhl argues that “unfortunately, many in today’s society continue to use derogatory terms that others may find offensive; however, if you were previously exposed to offensive language and understand how to deal with it, you should feel comfortable handling the situation.” 

Out of the 102 individuals who completed the survey and identified as male, Kuhl is one of 45% who said they feel that freedom of the press is threatened in American society.

“Many people in prominent roles try to coerce press members into conducting biased reporting and hiding certain information when putting together their stories. … The press should be able to exercise their rights and put out a story as they see it rather than have someone else tell them what they can and cannot write,” Kuhl said. “It is important for our citizens to have free speech in our democracy because everyone has a right to their own opinion. … if we are going to have a democracy, all voices should be heard.”

Freshman finance major Lauren Turnbull agrees with both Hamlin and Kuhl as she said she feels that greater exposure to biased language will cause students to become more self-aware. “It is also a good way to let students choose how they want to respond to that type of speech,” Turnbull added.

Turnbull said she believes that “our freedom of speech is threatened when people use the First Amendment as an excuse to say whatever they want regardless of the consequences of their words.” According to survey results, 48% of Rider women believe that freedom of speech is threatened in America today. 

She commends the university for its efforts to “block out threatening speech while still allowing other forms of ideas to be said and passed on campus.”

Similarly, junior psychology major Delaney Putt said she feels that “it is essential for college students to have all perspectives, even those that they disagree with.”

According to the results, 25% of women who completed the survey have felt uncomfortable or unsafe in a classroom setting, living area, public space or another part of campus because of something someone said about their race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation regardless of whether it was directed at them. Just 22% of Rider men have felt this way.

Nationwide, 1 in 5 students said they felt unsafe on campus, according to a national survey conducted by Knight Foundation, taking a sample upward of 1,000 college students ages 18-24 enrolled in various types of higher education institutions.

Putt said that there have been instances where she has “been made to feel less than males in work situations,” because she identifies as a woman.

“The men in these instances held positions of power and used that to their advantage and singled me out because they felt like ‘I could stand up for myself,’ when, in reality, they just wanted someone to blame,” Putt said. “Under the current [Biden] administration, I do not feel threatened, but, in the past, I felt very threatened that freedom of speech could be taken away from women and people of color.”

Unlike Hamlin, who feels that Rider could be making stronger efforts to protect the Rider community, Putt said that she “applauds Rider for their countless programs and efforts to educate the students on diversity and inclusion.”

Junior music production major Michelle Phalanukorn and senior English major Sofia Sannazzaro are two students at Rider who categorize among the 75% of women who have never felt uncomfortable or unsafe on campus because of racially motivated or biased speech. 

Sannazzaro said she believes that “students should be exposed to concepts and ideas but not necessarily offensive and discriminatory language. … people should be limited in their speech and should not be allowed to use offensive or biased language.”

She also emphasized that “it is important for citizens to have free speech rights so that they can share their ideas and beliefs with the world.” 

In 2021, 47% of people who participated in the Knight-Ipsos survey said they feel that freedom of speech is secure in the country today, leaving 53% to believe that freedom of speech is, in some way, threatened.

Of 395 Rider students, 48% said they feel that freedom of speech is threatened, and 45% said they feel that freedom of the press is threatened in America today.

Moreover, of the students who partook in the Rider survey and identified as a woman, 52% said they feel that freedom of speech is threatened in America today. Similarly, 55% said they feel that freedom of the press is at risk. While Sannazzaro does not completely agree that the country is threatened, she said that “freedom of speech and press is slightly insecure and … probably tampered with by some people in power … everyone has the freedom to say whatever they want.”

Conversely, Phalanukorn said she feels that freedom of speech is threatened in America.

“Freedom of speech is vitally important in maintaining our country’s advancement in both thought and technology. … if everyone thought the same, looked the same, believed the same things, then our entire nation would be stagnant,” Phalanukorn said. “Without differences, technology, knowledge and wisdom, no advancement would be possible.”

The Knight Foundation said that female students are more likely than male students to value free speech rights, reflecting a change from 2019 when more men indicated the importance of free speech rights. Further, female students are significantly more likely to have felt uncomfortable resulting from offensive or biased language on campus, as they did in 2019.

Like a majority of students at Rider, Phalanukorn expressed the importance for college students to be exposed to all types of speech whether they find it offensive or biased.

“By sheltering students, we are allowing them to be prepared for life outside of campus, but having speech that may be controversial to their own beliefs will build their listening skills,” Phalanukorn said. “If we listen long enough, without feeling the need to be right or wrong, without prejudice or bias on our side, we might find similarities and commonalities without judgment.”

Phalanukorn, like 69% of participants in the campus-wide survey, favors Rider’s efforts to protect its students and faculty by providing safe spaces or areas of campus designed to be free from ethnic and racial hatred.

“As a campus, guarding against certain threatening ideas, actions and conversations, along with biased speech against certain demographics, is certainly a better idea, due to college being a place where students should feel comfortable,” she said. “If we are referring to these efforts in a classroom setting, it may be beneficial to allow students’ actual thoughts and feelings to be heard and understood. … it will allow us to grow.”

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