Dismal Prognosis for Free Speech

By on June 8, 2005

Check out the latest column by Paul McMasters (an esteemed member of the Board of Editors for our Guides project) on free speech, “When school grounds become free-speech battlegrounds.” In the column Paul explains:

A survey of more than 100,000 high school students, teachers and officials funded by the Knight Foundation revealed that the vast majority of respondents either don’t think about or take for granted free-speech rights. And when they do think about them, they are often uninformed or, worse, dismissive: three-fourths of the students think flag-burning is illegal; half believe that the government can censor the Internet; only 51% believe that newspapers should be free to publish without government approval. [Emphasis added.]

There are no doubt a variety of reasons for these dismal findings. But the lessons most quickly learned by young people are not in classroom lectures but in what they see play out in official actions and policies affecting student life. A rising population hostile to the basic principles of free speech is more dangerous than even the worst speech code. I addressed a similarly worrisome trend in college students in a column from last fall:

In the spring of 2002, a New York Times article headlined “Debate? Dissent? Don’t Go There!” explored the growing perception that modern college students are more guarded about their views than students of previous generations. The author reviewed a number of potential causes for this, including the unifying effect of Sept. 11, disgust with partisan politics, the uncivil debates students see on cable news programs and simple politeness. Curiously absent from this article, however, was any suggestion that they may be learning this attitude from the colleges themselves. Today’s students are doubtless aware that speech which offends anyone can get them in serious trouble. Just this year, at universities including University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Occidental College, Rhode Island College, George Washington University, University of Georgia, and University of New Hampshire, students and faculty who engaged in what would be protected speech in the larger society were evicted from housing, suspended, sentenced to mandatory psychological counseling, threatened with expulsion, and found guilty of serious offenses ranging from “harassment” to “disorderly conduct.” [Links added.] The phenomenon of “free speech areas” perhaps best represents the attitude toward free speech at many colleges and universities today. Free expression will be tolerated but only grudgingly and only when it is agreeable, tightly controlled and regulated. Dozens, possibly hundreds, of schools mandate tiny, restrictive speech zones. In the past few years, we have received reports of unconstitutional speech zones at Clemson University, Western Illinois University, Florida State University, University of Nebraska at Omaha, University of Oregon, Ithaca College, California State University at Chico, West Virginia University, and University of Northern Texas, just to name a handful. [Link added.] With so many schools propagating rules that are hostile to freely following expression, where exactly are students supposed to learn to value freedom of speech? They will not learn it in their classes, as the Times article made clear, and they are not likely to learn it in their student activities, which are tightly regulated and controlled. They are even unlikely to learn respect for free speech from their fellow students.

I concluded:

For the sake of the liberty of future generations, we must educate the current generations about the value of free speech, not just about its perceived “downside.” People who believe in free speech and uninhibited debate on campus must stop feeling that they need to qualify or apologize for those essential beliefs. The messy, loud, chaotic and, yes, sometimes-offensive nature of a college campus is what makes the college experience compelling and unique. College administrators’ time would be far better spent preparing students for how to dive in and take full advantage of this chaotic paradise, rather than trying to corral all the most vocal students into tiny free-speech zones.

Whether expression is squelched by apathy, fear, or a decline in the popularity of the very idea of “free speech” we must always be aware of the message we are sending to our high school and college students about the value of our basic liberties. Our cofounder Alan Kors said it best: “A nation that does not educate in liberty will not long enjoy it, and will not even know when it has lost it.”