Civil Liberties in Academia

By on December 16, 2011

This essay won first place in FIRE’s 2011 "Freedom in Academia" Essay Contest.

By Vincent Kelley

Free speech is something we often take for granted in America. We don’t think it’s necessary to worry about this basic right being infringed upon; after all, it’s in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights! Moreover, we often believe that the colleges and universities of America, which claim to be havens for free speech and the free exchange of ideas in America, are the least likely places for any encroachment upon free speech rights. Unfortunately, maintaining civil liberties like free speech in America, and especially academia, is an ongoing struggle. There are those in power, inside and outside of academia, who know that college students are at an intellectually malleable time in their lives and, therefore, seek to mold students’ thinking, expression, and speech in a way that benefits their interests. This can be done through speech codes, expedient decisions in violation of due process, and the monitoring of controversial student groups on campus–just to name a few examples.

The question then becomes: Why is free speech important on campus? Many people believe that college students’ concerns should be about academics, not about whether they have their First Amendment rights. What these people fail to realize is that academic life and free speech are inextricably linked. If free speech is taken out of the equation, academic study becomes mere passive consumption of facts and leads to intellectual dependence on the presenter of the facts. Instead of learning to think, students are taught to accept the opinions of authority figures without question. This leads to a docile public conditioned to marginalize its own individual thoughts and opinions in favor of the ones it’s fed by the news media, government, and other influential entities. The only way to prevent this from happening is to vigorously defend and enhance free speech rights where they are needed the most: on our college and university campuses.

In the case of Valdosta State University, Hayden Barnes’ rights to free speech, free expression, and due process were all unabashedly violated by the University’s president. When Hayden respectfully asserted his basic constitutional rights, he was immediately assailed by the president, who attempted to suppress Hayden’s viewpoint and coerce him into dropping his involvement in the parking garage issue. Hayden responded by exercising his free expression rights with the creation of a collage that poked fun at the president’s attachment to his pet parking garage project. The response was immediate dismissal from the university. If Hayden and FIRE hadn’t fought back, a precedent of censorship and conformity would have been set on the Valdosta State campus. This could have bled into everything from classroom discussions to interactions between administrators and students. This type of censorship doesn’t just impinge upon students’ First Amendment rights, it robs them of the essence of a liberal education–an education in which all viewpoints should be judged on their merits, not their popularity.

Likewise, at the University of Delaware, students were expected to accept a particular way of thinking, even if it went against their conscience. They were assumed to hold certain prejudices and then expected to share private viewpoints with everyone in their orientation group–a clear violation of their right to privacy. Instead of discussing issues openly, students were forced to pick one side of an issue and answer yes or no to questions about complex personal matters. When students have their privacy rights invaded, their beliefs prejudged, and their discussion silenced, they are at the mercy of those controlling them. A campus then begins to resemble an authoritarian state more than a sanctuary for intellectual freedom and exploration.

When colleges can gain control of students’ thoughts, speech, and actions, America’s very democracy is at risk. Without free exchange of ideas in higher education, how can we expect it in the rest of society? When certain opinions are excluded from debate, those in power will maintain their grip on society. This phenomenon leads to a citizenry that feels powerless, marginalized, and robbed of their individual voice.

The work of educating young people and adults alike about their civil liberties is the only way to combat this unfortunate trend of rights violations in our colleges and universities. First, people need to understand what free speech really means. Free speech is not merely supporting the opinions of those we agree with; that’s not it at all. Only when we support the right of those whose opinions we despise to speak out freely, can we say we support free speech. This requires self-discipline and determination to stand by principles in a way many of us are not accustomed to doing. However, the benefits that accrue from supporting our enemies’ free speech rights far outweigh the internal difficulty that it takes to do so. Secondly, we need to educate people about their right to exercise freedom of speech, especially at our colleges and universities. The famous opinion from Tinker v. Des Moines stated that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." All students should know this and feel perfectly comfortable asserting their free speech rights on campus.

True civil libertarians know that freedom of speech is not an issue of left or right, liberal or conservative–it’s a direct preservation of our very democracy. When people with drastically different opinions can unite on this one principle, democracy in America is strengthened. We can’t take our free speech rights for granted if we are to come together on this issue, especially in our colleges and universities. These institutions have the power to make or break the future of American democracy. Only true defenders of free speech, like FIRE, can protect the democratic republic of the United States of America envisioned by our forefathers.