Free Speech is Integral to Higher Education

By December 16, 2011

This essay was a runner up in FIRE’s 2011 "Freedom in Academia" Essay Contest.

By Blaire Landon

Silence enveloped the courtroom as the 500 jurors filed back into their seats. A verdict had been reached. It was announced that 360 jurors had voted for the death penalty while 140 had voted for a fine. As the defendant was led from the room, he said, “If you offered to let me off this time on condition I am not any longer to speak my mind … I should say to you, ‘Men of Athens, I shall obey God rather than you.’” Socrates had become a martyr for the cause of free speech.

Although Socrates was one of the first to die for speaking his mind, he was certainly not the last. For two millennia afterwards, the human race struggled to make the dream of free speech a reality. The culmination of these efforts came in 1791 when the First Amendment was ratified. It guaranteed the right to free speech as well as other essential freedoms.

To twenty-first-century minds, the atrocities of antiquity seem inconceivable. Surely the injustice done to Socrates couldn’t happen in our civilized society. But in fact, an even more destructive form of censorship pervades our universities, places that should be the fiercest advocates for free speech. These limits have consisted of speech codes and sensitivity training, as well as other less blatant regulations.

Freedom of speech is integral to the purpose of higher education. To disregard it, even in the name of tolerance and liberation, violates its core goal. The purpose of higher education is liberation, but not in the sense some universities interpret it. Higher education should liberate students from ignorance and emotion by inspiring them to reach for something higher: reason. It is through reason that they can discover truth, think critically, and become leaders.

First, higher education is supposed to provide students with a foundation of truth on which to base their future thoughts and convictions. This foundation is often formed through classes in history and philosophy which explain what we are, what happened to us, and where we are going. For a firm foundation to be complete, dialectic conversations are necessary. Dialectic conversations differ from ordinary debate. In a debate, the speaker’s goal is to defend a position and win the round. During dialectic conversations, the goal is to discuss different arguments in the pursuit of truth. John Newman compared this type of discussion to the way a baby processes information. Just as babies use their senses to gather information and synthesize it, students use open and honest discussion to acquire knowledge and reach conclusions.

Second, higher education should provide a venue through which students can develop critical thinking skills; this is best done in a free and open environment. If students are allowed to challenge conflicting beliefs and be challenged about their own beliefs, they become better able to defend their ideas and principles. Even if they agree to disagree, both parties gain a greater understanding and appreciation of opposing views. For those whose purpose in attending college is to learn a profession, the ability to think critically will benefit them as well. Many employers claim that a vast number of college graduates can’t communicate or solve problems well. Those who have been trained to critically examine issues and take positions concerning them, however, will be equipped to compete in the workforce. As Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

Finally, and most importantly, higher education should play a vital role in transforming students into leaders who can participate in their government. In our system, citizens can challenge the status quo, call their representatives, and even run for office. Open dialogue is crucial to a self-governing society. Aristotle understood this when he said, “The right to free speech is integral to democracy.”

In the first video, Valdosta State University violated the student’s right to freely express his concerns. For him, it was a matter of conscience, and he peaceably presented his case in a way fitting with the First Amendment. By intimidating him and expelling him, not only did university officials violate his freedom of speech, they also discouraged leadership and the pursuit of truth.

In the second video, the University of Delaware exemplified the sentiments of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who said, “Man must be forced to be free.” Coercing students to conform to a way of thought under the guise of encouraging diversity and equality resulted in the suppression of those very ideals. Not only was this a breach of free speech, but it also eroded the very foundation they were supposed to be helping students create. The fact that there are people who abuse their freedom by making derogatory remarks about others is no reason to eliminate free speech. I echo the rationale of Voltaire, who in correspondence wrote, “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.”

If we allow such gross violations to continue, we will be setting up future generations to fail. It is the students of today who will create the policies of tomorrow. What they are being taught at universities is an accurate prototype of what they will advocate for society. As Ronald Reagan said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” That is why it is so important for organizations like FIRE to continue to champion the cause of free speech on campuses around the country.

It is believed that as Socrates accepted his fate of taking the hemlock, he turned to the bystanders and said, “The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways–I to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows.” Surely the injustice done to Socrates couldn’t happen today–or could it? If we do not safeguard our freedoms, we may soon find out.