FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Will Creeley was quoted in this week’s cover story in The Christian Science Monitor discussing the nexus between free speech on campus and the national discussion of free speech rights spurred by the Supreme Court case of Snyder v. Phelps, which was argued this week. The Monitor article contains a lengthy discussion of free speech on campus.
"The problem is, once you start prohibiting speech that is offensive there is no limit to how far you can extend the concept of offensiveness," says Richard Parker, professor emeritus of communication at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff and editor of the 2003 book "Free Speech on Trial."
This is an issue that arises on the vast majority of American college campuses through the proliferation and enforcement of speech codes designed to ban offensive speech on campus.
Free speech advocates say it is exactly the wrong lesson for young college students training to become productive citizens.
Will Creeley, a lawyer with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, says that the vast majority of colleges and universities in the country maintain some version of a speech code. FIRE has found only 12 schools that have no speech code. Among the no-code schools are Dartmouth College, the University of Pennsylvania, and William & Mary.
"Over 70 percent of [public and private schools monitored by FIRE] maintain restrictions on speech that would not stand if challenged in court based on relevant precedents," estimates Mr. Creeley. Rather than teaching the fundamentals of free speech and tolerance of offensive messages, he says, most schools are telling students they have a responsibility to stop hate speech, to engage in censorship.
"We have a saying here, if you go four years to a university or college and you are not once offended, you should ask for your money back," he says. "We feel there is inherent value in having your most deeply held beliefs tested."
The Monitor is to be commended for understanding the depth of the problem facing those who wish to engage in free speech on America’s campuses. Law professor Christina Wells lends support to FIRE’s arguments as well:
Professor Wells, at the University of Missouri, agrees. She says universities are risk-averse and believe speech codes are a magic bullet: "Having a First Amendment is much harder than you think. We tend to view the First Amendment as a rights-giving instrument. But we really ought to see the First Amendment as providing us the space to have these really important and difficult conversations."
She adds: "When we have these controversies, it is up to us to resolve them. Not the courts, not the police, but us."
Wells is right. Colleges seem to nearly universally have the impulse to end debates over controversial issues by prohibiting the expression of the "wrong" side of an issue (nowadays, often deemed "offensive," "racist," "disrespectful," "uncivil," etc.), or sometimes by banning any discussion of the issue at all. This is exactly wrong. Human experience and countless examples demonstrate that allowing the authorities to silence what they see as the "wrong" side of the issue is a bad idea that produces unjust results. There is no guarantee that the side the authorities take on an issue is going to be the right one, so censorship can set back progress immensely. Yet censorship is almost never effective in the long run, making it not only destructive but ultimately pointless. It may take a long time, but the truth eventually comes out, and we all benefit if it comes out as soon as possible so that we can more quickly progress in the continual search for knowledge.