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Navigating Free Speech on College Campuses: The Line Between Protected Speech and Hate Speech

Updated: Apr 3


Words that are banned a colleges - The ban on words at colleges
What words are banned on college campuses

Banned Words and Phrases on College Campuses: The Free Speech Debate


There is a growing trend for colleges and universities to ban certain words and phrases. As academia keeps its finger on the pulse of societal evolution, a myriad of words and phrases have come under scrutiny and have become banned words and phrases at many colleges and universities. Although the goal is to make us a more sensitive society, there are conflicting issues. When does banning words and phrases on college campuses impact the first amendment right to free speech. The list below includes some banned words and phrases at some college campuses and universities. Read them all and see what you think. Society is always in flux. The sign of a healthy democracy is one that embraces change, but also welcomes civil debate and discussion.

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50 Words & Phrases Banned on College Campuses: Their Origins and Rationales



"Freshman": Deemed gender-specific; "First-year student" is preferred.

"Mankind": Viewed as gendered. "Humankind" is now favored.

"Rule of thumb": Linked to dated laws about wife-beating. "General rule" is more accepted.

"Master bedroom": Connotations of slavery. "Primary bedroom" is suggested.

"Spirit animal": From indigenous cultures; misuse is viewed as insensitive. "Inspiration" is preferred.

"Tribe": Used to describe indigenous groups; casual use seems diminishing. "Community" is better.

"Gypped": Stereotypes against the Romani. "Scammed" is neutral.

"Crazy": Stigmatizes mental health. "Unbelievable" is a kinder alternative.

"Blind spot": From a visual metaphor; "Oversight" is preferred.

"Tone-deaf": About musical pitch, but misuse can be derogatory. "Insensitive" is an alternative.

"Manpower": Gendered. "Workforce" or "Human resources" are alternatives.

"Blacklist": Has racial undertones. "Blocklist" is preferred.

"Whitelist": Counterpart to "Blacklist". "Allowlist" is the modern term.

"Grandfathered in": Racial origins related to voting rights. "Legacy status" is more neutral.

"Peanut gallery": Historically referred to cheaper seats in a theater, often where Black people sat. "Comment section" or "Onlookers" are alternatives.

"No can do": Broken English that mocked Chinese immigrants. "I can't" or "It's not possible" are alternatives.

"Long time no see": Broken English mimicking Native American or Chinese speech. "It's been a while" works better.

"Uppity": Used to describe Black people who "didn't know their place". "Pretentious" can be used.

"Ghetto": Refers to areas where Jewish people were forced to live, now used to describe something cheap or of low quality. Use "low quality" or "inferior" instead.

"Mumbo jumbo": Likely originated from the Mandinka name "Maamajomboo", a masked dancer involved in religious ceremonies. "Nonsense" or "Jargon" are more respectful alternatives.

"Powwow": A Native American ceremony. "Meeting" or "Gathering" is better.

"Sold down the river": Refers to enslaved Black people being sold and sent down the Mississippi River. "Betrayed" is a better choice.

"Hip Hip Hooray": Its origins might be rooted in anti-Semitic chants. It's believed to be linked to the "Hep hep" cry from the 19th-century anti-Jewish riots in Germany. While modern usage is typically innocent and joyful, this historical association may cause some to view it with caution. However, most would not know of the history.

"Off the reservation": Refers to Native Americans leaving their assigned land. "Outside the norm" works.

"Savage": Used to describe indigenous people in a derogatory manner. "Fierce" or "Intense" might be better choices.

"Eskimo": A derogatory term for the indigenous people of Alaska and Northern Canada. "Inuit" or "Yupik" are more respectful.

"Indian giver": Based on stereotypes of Native Americans. "Renege" or "Take back" are alternatives.

"Bucket list": Trivializes death, implying a list of things to do before one "kicks the bucket". "Wish list" or "Life goals" are gentler.

"Moron": Once a term in psychology to describe intellectual disability. "Foolish" or "Unwise" are better.

"Derby": Originated from "Darby", a game where slaves tumbled in barrels for entertainment. "Competition" or "Match" works.

"Eenie meenie miney moe": Originally used a racial slur instead of "tiger". Avoid using it.

"Paddy wagon": Refers to the Irish ("Paddy" from "Patrick"), insinuating they were commonly arrested. "Police van" is more neutral.

"Hangout": Refers to lynching. "Meet up" or "Gathering place" is preferred.

"Cakewalk": A dance enslaved Black people were forced to do for white masters. "Easy task" is more neutral.

"Handicap": Originally meant someone who was physically disabled had to beg on the street with "cap in hand". "Disability" is a better term.

"Jipped": A derogatory term for being cheated, insinuating gypsies are thieves. Use "Cheated".

"Jungle gym": Evokes stereotypes of Africans. "Climbing frame" is more neutral.

"Go off the deep end": Used to say someone is acting crazy. "Overreact" or "Lose one's temper" are preferred.

"Thug": Became racialized during its use to describe people of color or those in lower socioeconomic status. "Criminal" or "Hooligan" is more specific.

"Free white and twenty-one": Implied that white people had a superior status. Avoid using it.

"Dumb": Originally meant people who couldn't speak, insinuating stupidity. "Mute" for non-speaking, "Unwise" for poor decisions.

"Basket case": Referred to WWI veterans who lost all limbs and had to be carried in baskets. "Unstable" or "Frail" might be better choices.

"Spastic": Used to mock people with cerebral palsy. "Clumsy" or "Uncoordinated" is better.

"Ghetto blaster": Racial undertones to describe a portable stereo. "Boombox" is neutral.

"Sit Indian style": Cultural appropriation of Native Americans. "Cross-legged" is more respectful.

"War paint": Mocks Native American rituals. "Make-up" is a neutral term.

"Turn a blind eye": Insensitive to the visually impaired. "Ignore" or "Overlook" is better.

"Call a spade a spade": Has racial connotations. "Call it as it is" is more neutral.

"Master/slave" in tech terminology: Evokes images of slavery. "Primary/replica" or "Leader/follower" are alternatives.

"Lame": Insensitive to those with physical disabilities. "Uncool" or "Outdated" are more accepted.



The controversy of Banned words on College Campuses


The sign of a healthy democracy is one that embraces change, but also welcomes civil debate and discussion. Campuses, as microcosms of larger society, often find themselves in the crosshairs of debates surrounding language, especially when considering whether certain words or phrases should be banned to promote inclusivity. However, some of the banned phrases go far back in history and are actually interpreted differently in the modern era. So the reason they are banned now is less clear. A classic example of this is the phrase "rule of thumb." Historically, there's a belief that the term originated from an old English law allowing men to beat their wives with sticks no thicker than their thumb. Although this explanation is now widely debunked, the mere association of the phrase with domestic violence has led some to argue for its removal from everyday campus discourse. On the other hand, others, armed with the knowledge of the phrase's actual origins, see it as a harmless idiom and view attempts to ban it as excessive. Another term that has seen its share of debate is "bucket list." While many use it casually to refer to things they want to achieve before they die, some individuals find it insensitive, as it may trivialize death or dying experiences. Advocates for mindful language on campuses argue that such terms can be replaced with alternatives that don't potentially marginalize or offend. Detractors, however, see it as an overreach, pointing out that the term, in popular culture and general discourse, is light-hearted and not intended to be dismissive of mortality. In both these instances, we witness the heart of the debate: it's less about the phrases themselves and more about the larger principles at play. Is it better to preemptively remove language that could be deemed offensive, thereby creating a more inclusive environment? Or does academic freedom necessitate an environment where words and phrases can be used freely, with the onus on education and context to mitigate potential harm?

Regardless of one's stance, what remains clear is the importance of dialogue. In a healthy democracy, and by extension on a vibrant campus, discussions about language should be approached with empathy and a willingness to listen. This ensures that as society evolves, so too does the language we use, but in a manner that respects both individual freedoms and collective well-being. Balancing Free Speech vs. Sensitivity: Has academia gone to far in their lists of banned words on college campuses

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states: "Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech..." Yet, there are limits: incitement, obscenity, defamation, and direct threats, for example. You can't yell "fire" in a crowded space if there isn't one. Universities grapple with balancing freedom of speech with inclusivity. Where we draw the line as a society is always something folks will debate.



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In Conclusion

The linguistic evolution in academia is often a mirror to societal change. However, balancing First Amendment rights with cultural sensitivity remains a challenge. People may differ in their opinions on the rational to banning some of these terms as some may not seem relevant and it is not how most understand their meaning today. However, one of the great things about America is we all have a right to our opinions, at least for now. The journey is about mutual respect and understanding, even if it means revisiting our language. Hopefully, as language evolves we can have civil debates with an understanding that others may understand your view, but respectfully disagree. That is what makes for an inclusive environment where great ideas thrive and grow. As stated at the beginning of this article, "Society is always in flux. The sign of a healthy democracy is one that embraces change, but also welcomes civil debate and discussion."


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