Free Speech: The Cornerstone of Civic Empowerment

By on January 31, 2014

This essay won third place in FIRE’s 2013 Essay Contest.

By Justin Hunsaker

In an era when political apathy and civic disengagement threaten to mitigate a new generation’s impact on its world, the actions of a young university student named Hayden Barnes would seem cause for praise. Concerned with his university’s imprudent allocation of student tuition funds-in this case, to build a forty million dollar parking garage-Barnes began to stir controversy about the issue, sending emails to his fellow students and distributing flyers denouncing the project. His actions demonstrated the epitome of civic virtue and republican responsibility. Unfortunately, university officials failed to see it that way. Perturbed by this unexpected crusade against his personal pet project, the president of the university repeatedly invaded Mr. Barnes’ fundamental right to privacy and freedom of conscience in an effort to discredit the student’s effort, setting an ominous precedent for any member of the student body who might desire to speak out in the future. All this harassment came from the very same institution that, on its website, purports to promote an “educated and enlightened populace” that embraces the responsibilities of “leadership, social interaction … and community service,” admirable qualities clearly present in Mr. Barnes when he sought to take his leaders to task for their misjudgment.

Barnes’ school evidently failed to realize the gravity of its own imperative-that any institution, whether it is a university or system of governance, remains entirely dependent on the free and open discourse of its empowered, individual members in order to shape and improve the institution as a whole. Like an assemblage of stone masons, each chipping away here and there to gradually perfect their communal sculpture, individual citizens can each use their power of speech to make targeted, unique impacts that contribute to the growth and refinement of their communities. This is the essence of constructive democracy; and by speaking out, Barnes embodied this concept, and evidenced the crucial power of the individual to better his society. Consider the larger context: it is not an accident that governments which promote critical, independent voices are the freest and most prosperous in the world. The most potent weapon against an established injustice, whether that is the infringements of a tyrannical king or the improper investment of university funds, has always been the communication of ideas. By taking punitive action against students who raise criticism, and through measures such as segregating open speech to tiny “free speech zones,” universities not only align themselves with the tyrants who would choke out free speech in the name of executive expediency, but also steal from the student body a vital power for self-correction and intellectual advancement.

This disempowerment, expressed through individual infringements like the one against Hayden Barnes, or through the implementation of restrictive policies such as the so-called “speech codes” many universities embrace today, extends broadly-as such measures not only decay the overall intellectual vitality of the institution but also enable the slow degradation of the individual rights upon which our country was founded. In the 1952 case Wieman v. Updegraff, the United States Supreme Court referred to such a phenomenon as the “chilling effect”-when one man is pressed by legal sanctions for exercising his free speech, his peers take note, and are more wary of exercising their own rights in the future. This trend becomes cyclical, with each enfeeblement of the individual citizen further enabling authoritative restriction, until a once proud tradition of open speech is gradually lost. Again, the consequences of such a decline are twofold-not only is the individual deprived of his liberty and dignity as a citizen under the constitution, but the institution’s intellectual capital is diminished, and its potential for enlightened progress lessened.

As this would imply, the consequences of the repression of free speech extend far beyond campus boundaries. Universities harbor our most fertile and active minds, and as such, they bear a unique and tremendous responsibility to provide for those minds an opportunity to be cultivated in free and open discourse, to trade in the marketplace of ideas as they grow in maturity and propose ideas and solutions for the betterment not just of their individual institutions, but of their countries and of mankind. “Learned Institutions ought to be favorite objects with every free people,” declared James Madison, for throughout the ages they have “thrown light over the public liberty,” as the breeding grounds for innovative ideas that have advanced our collective freedoms and enlightened our views of the world. Indeed, from John Locke’s ideals on the rights of man, to Aristotle’s theories on government and democracy, many of our most cherished concepts as a democratic society have emerged from the academic crucible of free and open dialogue. To cut off from the source this wellspring of progress is not only a disservice to the nation at large, but wholly antithetical to all that higher education claims to stand for: progress, enlightenment, individual empowerment. These are not empty platitudes. By speaking out, students can make a genuine impact in their communities and on the future direction of their countries.

It is for this reason that Thomas Jefferson asks: “What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable, than that of liberty and learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual and surest support?” Institutions of education set the precedent and standard for the principles of a country as a whole; after all, it is today’s university students who will be tomorrow’s leaders and citizens. Students like Mr. Hayden Barnes hold the power to shape the mold of society and promote its growth in a more positive direction through the dissertation of their ideas and the magnitude of their passion, and such empowerment to be an agent of change is the greatest gift a university can confer upon a student. Indeed, it is the only gift that can truly change the world-and for that reason, free speech, the cornerstone of that empowerment, must be treasured and protected as the most fundamental of rights of any learned institution.