Colleges shouldn’t suppress students’ speech, thought

August 23, 2013

The purpose of an educational institution is to cultivate thought, reason and the knowledge necessary to be a productive part of society.  The key to meeting this end in a democratic society is to plant the seeds of wisdom and to let them grow into what they will, not to deny them water when they aren’t growing into the expected plant or to manipulate them to develop in a certain fashion.  American colleges and universities should be designed to instill the ability to think as an individual and bring forth new ideas and innovations to an ever-changing society. Students should be given the tools to grow into educated voters and independent cogs of the complex wheel that is a democratic nation. At St. Norbert College, I have found a great deal of freedom of speech. Unfortunately, however, this is not always the reality in U.S. colleges. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, is a nationwide organization that developed because institutions of higher education in America didn’t always uphold American ideals. When students or faculty members face impositions upon their First Amendment rights, they can contact FIRE to step in and fight for their rights.   Many American institutions impose upon the rights of students and faculty to free speech. Beyond this, many even forget American concepts of freedom of thought, turning instead to Orwellian programs designed to force specific viewpoints. If students are taught that not everything they think or say will be tolerated, they’ll fall silent. When FIRE was called into Valdosta State, it was because a student had brilliant insight into the establishment of a new parking garage and the harm it could cause. While his ideas should have been taken into account by the Valdosta State staff before it spent so much money on a project that, perhaps, was not the best thing for their students, the student was thrown out of school because of his protest. Cases like that of Valdosta State happen all too regularly in the U.S., despite the democratic ideals of individual freedoms. Other recent FIRE cases illustrate just how great the problem is, such as the incidents at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, in which officials had tried to force censorship of a poster put up by a drama professor, and at Sam Houston State University, in which a professor cut an offensive posting from a “Free Speech Wall”. Schools of higher education are meant to do exactly what their name implies: educate students in a higher level of thinking. These schools should be working hard to help students develop individual opinions and thoughts. It’s entirely necessary for the future of a strong democratic nation. A nation that relies on uneducated voters who don’t know how to think for themselves or express opinions is doomed to fail. When FIRE was recently called for help at the University of Delaware, it found something truly shocking. The staff had created an orientation program for new students that, while intended to curb racist and prejudiced thought, was literally demanding that students think and believe what they’re told to by the officials conducting the program. The program began to push the students into reverse discrimination, in which they couldn’t help thinking about discriminatory factors like race and treated their peers differently as a result. While the intent to curb discrimination was noble, the end result was a near-Orwellian brainwashing program. Institutions of higher education don’t have the right to tell their students what to think or what not to. Instead of being taught to think, they’re being taught to regurgitate what their professors have told them in a way reminiscent of Russian communism. While freedom of thought is not specifically enumerated in the Constitution, it shouldn’t need to be. As a nation symbolized by such emblems as the Statue of Liberty and the Bill of Rights, the inalienable right to freedom of thought should never be denied to American students and a clause or amendment in the Constitution to defend this right should not be necessary. However, as FIRE has discovered, perhaps such a measure should be taken to protect the sanctity of American colleges and universities.