The Importance of Free Speech on Campus
As a former student protester from the '60s, I believe there is no better place for open debate and free expression than the campus quad. I fully support America’s youth exploring outlandish ideas because I believe our values can withstand the comparisons and will be stronger because of them.
But, what’s happening on our campuses from Mizzou to Yale to Claremont-McKenna is different and disturbing. Student activists seem to lack any real understanding of what empowers them to promote their concepts of diversity and tolerance.
As the product of a public education from a different era, I was taught that America was a unique nation in world history because it was based on the concepts of equality and liberty as set forth in our Declaration of Independence; equality before God and the liberty to live your life as you choose as long as you don’t interfere with the rights of others.
These values led to the Civil War as slavery is incompatible with equality before God. As President Lincoln queried, the question was whether “a nation conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal . . . can long endure.”
Equality before God won, evolving over time to equality of opportunity (as most people understand it today). It’s that notion of equality that has been at the core of every civil rights struggle from racial equality to women’s’ rights and, more recently, gay rights.
In order to defend these values, each individual must hold certain inalienable rights upon which government cannot infringe. Perhaps the most important is the right of free speech. Its value comes from both the ability of every individual to freely express their views and the inability of any individual or group to suppress opposing views.
Disturbingly, students today seem to have lost touch with the importance of free speech and view it as an obstacle to achieving their goals.
At the University of Missouri, a student photographer covering protests of alleged racism faced a group of students chanting “Hey hey, ho ho, reporters have got to go.” The photographer protested that “This is the First Amendment that protects your right to stand here and mine. . . . The law protects both of us.” An assistant professor of mass media (really) responded: “Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here.”
When asked about this effort to “muscle” a student journalist away from a public event, the vice president of the Missouri Students Association responded: "I personally am tired of hearing that First Amendment rights protect students when they are creating a hostile and unsafe learning environment for myself and for other students here."
At Yale, a college official told students that offensive Halloween costumes should not be taken seriously stating that: “After all, free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.” A very vocal student’s response: “You should not sleep at night! You are disgusting.” And “Walk away, he doesn’t deserve to be listened to.”
Continuing this trend, the student government at Wesleyan University voted to cut funding for the 150-year-old campus newspaper because it published an opinion piece by a conservative writer questioning the tactics of the Black Lives Matter movement, although not the merits. At Amherst, students insisted that the university punish individuals who posted flyers on the importance of free speech.
Why are these students so disconnected from the very right upon which their freedom stands? One explanation: A recent survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni of 1,100 colleges and universities found that a mere 18 percent required courses in American history or government, where the place the First Amendment and free speech hold in our hierarchy of values might have been explained and understood. Lacking this understanding, a recent Pew Research Center poll found that 40 percent of American millennials (ages 18-34) support government prevention of public statements offensive to minorities. Only around a quarter of Gen Xers (27%) and baby boomers (24%) and roughly one-in-ten in the Silent Generation (12%) said the government should be able to prevent such speech.
Perhaps most disturbing has been the reaction of college administrators (apologies and resignations) which seem to all but concede the legitimacy of student attempts to suppress free speech. Of course, no college administrator wants to appear to be a racist and there’s nothing wrong with people examining their actions and apologizing if their motives were misguided.
But, the issues here go beyond racism. Colleges should be addressing the needs and strengths of a free society well before an inflamed group of students tramples the rights of others in the name of diversity and tolerance. You don’t change peoples’ minds by stopping them from speaking theirs.
Rather than labeling dissenting views as hate speech or trigger warnings, colleges would better serve their students by emphasizing that a free society can only remain free if there is genuine respect for open thought and free expression. That you can only achieve genuine diversity when people are free to say what they think regardless of political correctness. Otherwise, our campuses will become bastions of conformity rather than learning.
This is the discussion we should be having on college campuses, while we still have the freedom to do so.