Constitution-feat
Why Free Speech Isn’t Conditional

By July 29, 2014

Laura Sorice is a FIRE summer intern.

It’s difficult to argue that free speech isn’t important. So when I explain FIRE’s mission to curious inquirers, they always seem to respond the same way—smiling, nodding, and occasionally interjecting with an “Oh, wow, that’s great!” When I began discussing some of the specific cases that FIRE has been involved in, one friend stated: “I believe in free speech, but I think that we should still fight against what we think is morally wrong.”

This statement forced me to look a little more closely at why, so often, the First Amendment finds itself trampled upon on college campuses. While administrators and university officials are frequently the perpetrators when it comes to banning protected speech, students also have an influence how the First Amendment will or will not be upheld at their universities. Unfortunately, too many students have the same misconception as my friend. They think that their ability to advocate for their own moral beliefs without dissenting voices requires a restriction on free speech. But the desire to take a moral stand is not incompatible with an overarching respect for the First Amendment. In fact, free speech is a vital tool for those who advocate for a moral cause.

At Stanford University, funding for a student group’s conference on marriage and “sexual integrity” was rescinded after complaints from segments of the student population. The student government decided that the content of the conference would offend LGBT students on campus. While Stanford University is a private school, it promises students a commitment “to the principles of free inquiry and free expression.” Yet the intentions of Stanford students seem clear in this case: They wanted to protect the feelings of their peers while restricting the freedom of speech of certain political student groups.

While Stanford silenced a conservative political group, the University of South Carolina Upstate cancelled a program titled “How to Become a Lesbian in 10 Days or Less” due to pressure from state legislators.

Both of these universities are attempting to fight for moral correctness. But the inherent subjectivity of “offensive speech” results in the censorship of whatever the ideological majority disagrees with. That’s why, without rigid adherence to the principles of free speech, even the ideas we believe are upright can fall victim to censorship.

On campus, college students are agents of change when they display a willingness to stand up for their beliefs. Students have the power to change policies and practices on their own campuses—both for better and for worse. If they join administrators in silencing certain voices on campus, universities may never be able to serve as a true open forum of ideas.

Students who fear the voices of dissenters on their campus do not have to sit idly by when they hear speech with which they disagree. The First Amendment allows students to speak out against speech they disagree with, not to silence it. Counter-speech, or responsive speech directed toward an opinion or idea one disagrees with, can be extremely effective in creating change. Silencing someone’s opinion does nothing more than prevent a conversation about contested issues from entering the public forum. Counter-speech makes uncontested statements into a conversation. This type of communication is absolutely vital to advocacy groups and those fighting for others to change their minds about political and social issues.

For example, at the University of California, Los Angeles, counter-speech sparked a nationwide discussion about race-related issues. For some, the conversation may have validated preconceived opinions, but for others it may have allowed them to look more closely at the issues and in turn change their minds. Regardless, if the initially “offensive” speech had been prohibited, advocates would never have been able to recognize that this view was held in society and organize to argue against it.

The First Amendment protects majority opinions as well as opinions that are unpopular. Just about every great movement in America started as a minority idea. So in protecting views that are seen as unfair and biased, we also protect those that will one day grow to become major tenets of American culture. Only in a society in which the First Amendment is protected will students who hold minority opinions be able to achieve their aims. No artificial feeling of safety and success that comes from silencing a dissenter will lead to long-term triumph.

Schools: Stanford University University of California, Los Angeles Cases: Stanford University: Viewpoint-Discriminatory Funding Retraction, Massive Security Fees for Student Group’s Conference