The Story Behind Voiceless

Trigger Warnings. Safe spaces. Campus protests.

These issues are at the forefront of the ongoing debate over freedom of expression on college campuses across the nation. Institutions of higher education, bastions of debate and learning, are increasingly becoming embroiled in controversies surrounding free expression and the safety—both emotional and physical—of their students.

And while studies show that students hold a wide spectrum of views on these complex issues, the data suggest that some of today’s college students also tends to believe that they are “somewhat coddled” by their institution.

What is the truth? It depends on whom you ask.

“Voiceless” is a multimedia project that was conceived, written and produced by journalism students in the “Writing and Editing for Convergent Media” course at American University in Washington, D.C.

Working in collaboration with NBCWashington.com, our team of 14 students set out on a semester-long project designed to research, analyze and dissect the debate over free speech on college campuses through interviews and originally produced work.

Each student in the course also took on a specific role, whether it was serving as photo editor, copy editor or social media editor. Besides writing stories, students worked to promote the survey, took photos and videos, edited stories, and helped with the layout and design of the website.

It quickly became clear, through almost daily news stories about free speech controversies, that this was a complex issue with no definite answer.

The path here

When we started the project in January 2016, we had a number of questions surrounding the ongoing conversation. Does tolerance of unbridled speech promote tolerance of every student? Does tolerance at the expense of free speech only serve to hinder meaningful learning and debate? When do efforts to promote student safety outweigh speech, and which one deserves greater importance on our college campuses?

By primarily focusing on the experiences of current college students between the ages of 18 and 26, we attempted to answer these questions through discussions with free speech advocates and student activists.

Our project took many turns over the course of the semester. It quickly became clear, through almost daily news stories about free speech controversies, that this was a complex issue with no definite answer. Almost as quickly as we settled on specific topics, other stories on campus free speech flooded the news.

But through our efforts, we were able to delve into many important issues on today’s college campuses. We learned that the latest frontier of the debate over safe spaces has become bathrooms, with many states weighing in on the issue. We learned that social media apps and video games are serving as anonymous free speech platforms, often allowing users to engage in hateful and offensive conduct that gets tied back to universities. And we found that the variety of opinions regarding safe spaces is often rooted in personal experiences and ideological beliefs.

There is no single viewpoint that encapsulates the complexities of the campus free speech debate. If anything, these issues are gaining more prominence at colleges as outside debates and societal struggles permeate campuses nationwide. But it is our hope that this site will give you a better understanding of free speech issues on campus—and whether, amidst all of the controversy, student voices from all perspectives can be clearly heard.

—Edward Graham

Managing Editor, Voiceless