College and University Censorship of Student Speech Undermines America’s Future

By on January 31, 2014

This essay won third place in FIRE’s 2013 Essay Contest.

By Emily Cox

It is commonly thought that when someone goes to college, he is free from childhood constraints: free to eat what he wants, free to create his own schedule, and free to express his opinions without fear of retribution. However, college speech codes around the country ensure that students do not actually have the freedom to say what they wish. This is highly problematic; censored speech is fundamentally irreconcilable with higher education since the purpose of colleges and universities is to build the next generation of explorers, scientists, innovators, thinkers, and politicians. The true value of college is not the knowledge students gain from the classes they take; rather, it is the critical thinking and analysis skills, as well as the ability to develop new ideas, that prepares them to become the world leaders of tomorrow.

The ability to think critically and analyze issues is paramount to achieving success in the modern world. The United States needs leaders who make decisions on their own and have the confidence to act on them. When colleges censor free speech on their campuses-hubs in which students prepare to enter the workforce and tackle real issues-they create a generation of “yes men.” The values of the past promulgated by college leaders are not always the most moral or effective, so they should not always be unquestionably accepted. However, when universities prohibit students from thinking for themselves, they make sure that this will normally be the case.

Sometimes, though, a brave student will speak up for what they believe is right based on their own examinations and conclusions. Such was the case with Hayden Barnes, a student at Valdosta State University, who protested the university’s construction of a parking lot paid for with $40 million in student fees. Barnes created fliers, wrote emails, and even published a letter in the student paper expressing his opposition to the costly project and suggesting more constructive ways in which the $40 million could be spent. The college met his reasonable actions, the type of behaviors which should be encouraged on college campuses, with hostility by threatening to remove him from the university. Embarrassed that Barnes challenged the value of his pet project, the president of Valdosta told Barnes that he could never forgive him for the personal embarrassment his protest caused the president. This petty reasoning does not justify the university’s overreach in trying to remove Barnes from the school. Barnes simply employed his right to freedom of speech to call attention to an action that he believed hurt the student population and merited discussion. Criticism like this should be recognized as beneficial to both colleges and student development instead of being censored.

Besides promoting critical thinking and analysis skills, protected free speech on campuses supports students in social, theoretical, and technological innovation. No matter how well accepted at any given point in time, ideas often get stale, and there is always a better way to accomplish a task or address an issue. However, colleges stifle creative thinking when they restrict free speech on their campuses, leading students fearful of punishment for anything that they say that might challenge the status quo. Given how much universities contribute to the global knowledge pool through their research in many fields, the significance of restricting free speech on their campuses cannot be underrated. For example, without restrictions on free speech, a student research team can explore a controversial subject or discover ground-breaking information that goes against the accepted values and understanding of college leadership without worry of retribution. Where would the world be today if Galileo had not promoted the heliocentric model of the solar system? How much more would he have discovered if he was not constantly censored by the church for his pioneering ideas? The college students of today are the Galileos of tomorrow. But their discoveries will be directly limited by how freely they are allowed to think and speak.

History has proven that young people, particularly students at universities, are often the most effective proponents of social issues. These students-those who supported peace instead of the war in Vietnam, those who fought for civil rights, women’s rights, and now gay rights-have been and continue to be the United States’ greatest hope for progression towards full equality and justice. When higher education institutions like the University of Delaware force their students to speak against their will, especially on current contentious issues of race and sexuality, they prolong racial and sexual tensions instead of allowing students to work towards tolerance and acceptance. If left to their own devices, students will break down social barriers more efficiently than any university’s mandatory “tolerance-promoting” sessions.

The United States is a country known for its commitment to freedom. How can its universities so egregiously violate one of America’s most fundamental tenets? Though it is shocking to hear of any single violation of a student’s freedom of speech, perhaps even more important is the submissive culture that universities foster by censoring speech on their campuses. As the United States moves into a period in which it must work harder to solve complex issues and maintain its global power, it needs critical thinkers, daring innovators, and those who have the courage to rise up and challenge the status quo. By restricting the speech of these future leaders, colleges and universities imperil the future of America.