Free Speech’s Importance on Campus

By January 31, 2013

This essay was a third place winner in FIRE’s 2012 Essay Contest.

By Alexandra Crum

The United States has long been an advocate of free speech, yet historically, there have been several times when America’s government has tried to place limits on this essential right, such as the notorious Alien and Sedition Acts. These laws were passed by Congress in 1798 and banned criticism of the government amidst fears of a potential war with France. Although most politicians and leaders believe free speech is important, there exists a tendency for such leaders to attempt to suppress opposing viewpoints. The same issue exists in the smaller world of a college campus. The protection of free speech in a college or university is as necessary as the protection of free speech nationwide.

The most obvious reason colleges shouldn’t limit free speech that occurs to most Americans is the First Amendment of the Constitution. In the Amendment, the protection of free speech is guaranteed to all citizens. Suppression of free speech on a college campus directly contradicts the supreme law of the land. Aside from being illegal, treating free speech in such a manner fails to impress its importance upon a generation of future leaders, further exacerbating the problem.

College is a time of great development for students. One of the key aspects of a college education is the development of critical thinking skills and well-thought out beliefs; yet, if open debate and diverse viewpoints are suppressed, what forms instead are shallow beliefs parroted from the taught viewpoint with no critical thought behind them. It is essential for the formation of a student’s beliefs that they are challenged. Consider the example of the University of Cincinnati, which has a “free speech zone” that confines demonstrations and protests to an area that makes up 0.1% of the campus. Not only does this go against the Constitution, but also it does students a great disservice by limiting their opportunity to expand their thinking.

Educational institutions are not infallible organizations. Rulings made even outside the realm of free speech may draw criticism from students, parents, and the general public. Listening to differing opinions may help colleges improve their policies in all areas. Censorship got in the way of potential improvement in the case of Saint Augustine’s College in North Carolina after a tornado. A student that criticized the college’s decision to reopen despite a continuing lack of power was banned from his graduation ceremony.

Students aren’t the only ones on campus that are threatened by free speech suppression. Educators have been hurt by college or university policies as well. Professors such as KC Johnson have faced punishments by their university and coworkers for speaking out against practices they perceived as unjust. When Professor Johnson criticized a program at Brooklyn College that evaluated the disposition of students training to be elementary teachers, he faced an investigation by the university’s “Integrity Committee.”

A learning environment can’t flourish when instructors fear to speak or invite debate, which is why academic freedom has traditionally been valued. Constantly worrying about whether or not their lecture or discussion will result in the loss of their jobs makes professors unable to teach to their fullest potential. The teacher that was charged with racial harassment for using the term “wetbacks”, a derogatory term for illegal immigrants, is an example. The professor was actually criticizing the term when the incident occurred. Another example is Professor Peter Ratener of Bellevue Community College. Bellevue attempted to suspend Professor Ratener for composing a math problem involving a woman named Condoleezza throwing a watermelon off of a roof.  Fear of such censorship will only cripple the faculty’s ability to educate their students and encourage critical thinking.

Learning on a college campus doesn’t just occur in class. Students learn from each other as well. Two students of different religions, cultures, or backgrounds can learn much from open, uncensored discussion with each other. Informal discussions such as this can challenge beliefs and teach students about the world as well as an in-class discussion. They are an essential part of the college experience. Vague harassment policies can threaten this dialogue by effectively banning any potentially offensive remarks made in the course of the discussion. Policies and laws, like the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act, that remove the requirement for objectivity in deciding what is offensive offer ways to shut down disagreeing viewpoints by claiming harassment.

Censorship of free speech is absolutely incompatible with higher education. The limiting of free speech takes away valuable learning opportunities, creates fear that harms instructors efficacy in the classroom, takes away academic freedom, and violates the First Amendment. As institutions that shape and train the citizens of our country, colleges and universities have a responsibility to exemplify the principles that our country values. Campuses that censor free speech fail to give students the best education that they can attain by undermining the development of the students’ critical thinking and beliefs. For the sake of truly valuable education, free speech must be allowed.