For all the attention given to outrageous cases of intolerance on college campuses, we found they may be the exception rather than the rule. We continue our look at “Snowflake Syndrome” with a visit to a college campus with an amazing story.
The University of Nevada Reno turned out to be central to the free speech debate in 2017. Two Americans from here became poster children for national controversies. One of them, the NFL's Colin Kaepernick, who led the controversial movement to kneel during the National Anthem to protest white police killing unarmed black suspects.
The other, college student Peter Cvjetanovic, whose photo was circulated worldwide after he took part in a torch-carrying white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Bret Simmons: Free speech has been alive and well on every campus that I've been employed at.
Bret Simmons is an associate professor at the University of Nevada. He's not an official spokesman. He remembers first seeing Cvjetanovic's photo in Charlottesville.
Bret Simmons: And as soon as I saw it on Twitter, I sent it, you know, to people I know in the administration. I said I don't know if you've seen this but you need to be aware of it. And they were aware of it. And then, of course, it hit national news and we all learned who Peter was at that time. But you can imagine that as soon as it became public, people began to voice their opinions.
We found Cvjetanovic at his apartment not far from campus, where he's now a senior.
Peter Cvjetanovic: There was an online petition started I think Saturday morning to have me expelled. And it acquired about 20,000 signatures to have me expelled.
Sharyl Attkisson: And then, were you afraid you might get kicked out of school for this?
Peter Cvjetanovic: I was a little bit worried but I believed I didn't do anything wrong. I still believe I didn't do anything wrong. I did something stupid, but not something to get me expelled.
And an amazing thing happened. The president of the university agreed that Cvjetanovic, the self-described white nationalist, had every right to express his controversial views.
Peter Cvjetanovic: He said, in essence, that you know, the premise, I didn't break the law and the university is an inclusive environment for everyone, of all political ideologies of all beliefs, you know of course, from the far left to the far right. And that he has the right to continue to finish his education here, whether we like it or not.
Cvjetanovic says he returned to class where he was ostracized, ignored, then managed to blend back in on a campus that largely tolerates diverse views. And where, after listening to differing views, he proceeded to change his own.
Sharyl Attkisson: Your biggest mistake?
Peter Cvjetanovic: My biggest mistake is that I stupidly said I am a white nationalist. And at that time I did believe I was. But after looking back at the at the movement, looking back what happened I realize that to call myself white nationalists is very wrong and I no longer agree. I no longer see myself as such. It's, I think, a very I think a toxic idea with a very toxic creation. So I no longer see myself as a white nationalist and I hope to distance myself away from that ideology and that movement as much as I can.
Bret Simmons: No one likes what he said. No one supports the fact that he was, you know, promoting white supremacist views. But we do support his First Amendment rights to say it and he should be protected to say things we don't agree with and things we don't like. And I'm quite proud that the university supported him. I'm extremely proud of our students.
Student: I think that everybody has a voice on this campus, and especially since like it is a big university, there's so many people that attend so many different like diverse groups of people. I feel like that everyone should feel comfortable in speaking out and having their voice be heard.
The ACLU's Lee Rowland says today, she counsels students that trying to block offensive speech is neither constitutional nor effective.
Lee Rowland: The reason I tell students silencing isn't an option is because it always backfires. It allows people with hateful ideas to take on the mantle of martyrdom. If I give young people one nugget of advice, it's not to censor, but to find your own voice. And never underestimate the value of humor. It unites people. It disarms people and it's the enemy of over-serious fascism and hate. One of my favorite YouTube videos that I show to anybody I get a chance to is a young musician who plays the sousaphone and heard that the KKK was coming to his town.
Lee Rowland: And rather than hold the poster or you know chant slogans you just brought out his big brass tuba thing and he kind of umpa umpa umpa right down the street next to the KKK March.
Lee Rowland: Look I'm not suggesting that everybody needs to react to hate with humor because sometimes people don't have that luxury. But, man, it's powerful when you can do it.
In the end, we found there are plenty of students and campuses standing firmly behind American free speech. And rejecting Snowflake Syndrome.
Student: I think people look at the cases of kids who are really bad and really can't handle stuff, but I'd say in general everyone else deals with it pretty well.
Student: Like some people, they are like easily triggered, but it's like I guess that's kinda like everyone's just trying to be politically correct and everything I don't know. Most people aren't like that I feel like.
Student: I don't think it's that we're too soft or that we're like a snowflake. I think we're more aware of different cultures and sexualities than ever before and it's becoming more accepted and I think a lot of previous generations weren't as open-minded to that and it's easy to label that as just being too soft.
Student: Wherever you go, whether professors teaching or anything like that, it's always open-minded and they're very conscious that everybody else has their own opinions. So I personally from my political standpoints I've never felt discriminated or closed off. I felt like I've always been able to speak.
There may even be overlapping points of agreement between the ACLU's Rowland and entertainer Adam Carolla.
Lee Rowland: I think that's what students need to recognize is that part of the curriculum is to flex those muscles. How do you deal with adversity? How do you deal with people you fundamentally disagree with? Because that's what the world looks like.
Adam Carolla: Hard work. Focus. Grit. You know, Intestinal fortitude. Like all the stuff they're trying to wish away or argue away or cry away. Those are constants and those will never go away. There are certain things that could be considered progress and I'm all for 'em. But there are also certain things you can never argue with and that is just having a little bit of a thicker skin than you're currently wearing.
A recent Knight Foundation Gallup poll found college students value inclusiveness and free speech but when asked to choose— said that promoting an inclusive society is more important than the constitutional right of free speech.