Freedom of Expression in Higher Education

By December 17, 2010

by Mollyanne Gibson 

A student was charged with racial harassment. Resident Assistants taught orientation to freshmen in the residence halls. Neither of these occurrences seems particularly significant; however, these two events were being used to shackle freedom of expression.

Freedom of expression is not simply a nice sentiment that universities can confine to humanities lectures and textbooks. Freedom of expression is critical to the purpose of higher education, to the creation of solid opinions, and to the search for truth.

Censorship violates the purpose of higher education. Higher education’s purpose is to learn how to think, not what to think. At the lower levels of education, learning facts is emphasized. A kindergartner must learn that plants are green, a first grader must learn that "cat" is spelled C-A-T, and a second grader must learn that five minus two equals three. At this level, the purpose of education is to teach facts. Classical education theory calls it "grammar school," because you are learning the basics of reality, or the "grammar." However, as our brains develop and we transition out of elementary school, through high school, and into college, we can begin to examine the questions of why and how. Why are plants green? How did the English language develop? How can we use arithmetic to solve for the derivative of a function? The purpose of higher levels of education, particularly that of a college or university, is to teach students how to think.

The United States Supreme Court has upheld the distinction between the differing purposes of high schools and universities. High school officials do have the authority to limit freedom of expression in certain instances, whereas officials at a public university may not abridge freedom of expression.

In today’s rapidly changing world, students need to understand how to sift through new information. The universities in these two videos were doing more than violating the students’ freedom of expression; they were trampling upon the purpose of higher education.

Why is it crucial for universities to help students develop critical thinking skills? Students who are taught how to think are more likely to develop solid opinions and have the skills to analyze other controversial issues. At the University of Delaware, students were told what to think and believe, rather than being taught how to think and how to develop a foundation for belief. As Professor Blits explained, "The stated goals of the program were to change the students’ attitudes, beliefs, actions, opinions, on a whole range of social and political questions." Notice the point here was to "change" the students, not help them evaluate these dynamic social issues for themselves.

What will happen when the beliefs those students learned are questioned? Compare a student who attended  this "treatment" versus a student who was encouraged to think for himself. Which student would be better prepared to provide a well reasoned defense of his positions? Which student is more likely to be capable of reasoning out other difficult issues and drawing a well-thought-out opinion? Free speech creates an environment that fosters the development of critical thinking.

Not only does freedom of expression help individuals better develop and articulate their ideas, it encourages a free marketplace of ideas. When there is freedom to present opposing views, truth is more likely to emerge. This is not a new idea. Philosopher John Milton wrote concerning the prevailing censorship in 17th-century Europe, "Let her [Truth] and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter? She needs no policies, nor stratagems, nor licensings to make her victorious … give her but room." When truth is given a level playing field, it will defeat falsehood."

John Milton and other Reformation-era philosophers’ writings influenced America’s Founding Fathers to protect freedom of expression in the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment prohibits Congress from trampling upon freedom of speech. This guarantee applies to public universities. In America, the highest law of the land protects the free marketplace of ideas.

One of the bothersome aspects of the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis case was that the student’s action that was considered racial harassment was reading a book: an activity engaged in for the expansion of ideas. In fact, that same book could be found in the campus library. While Mr. Sampson claimed that there was no ill intent, the question remains: what happens to the marketplace of ideas when books can no longer be freely read at a university?

University of Delaware’s motto, Scientia Sol Mentis Est (knowledge is the light of the mind), declares the importance of knowledge. In its residence hall programs, the university was hindering the pursuit of knowledge by indoctrinating the students with its political agenda. As the students interviewed in the video reasoned, although though they agreed with many of the concepts that were forced upon students in the residence halls, coercing the freshmen to agree with the university’s agenda was wrong. When the students can no longer freely express and debate their opinions, then Truth has become endangered.

On campuses across America, groups like FIRE are a vital safeguard for freedom of expression. By defending the constitutionally guaranteed right to free expression, FIRE protects the purpose of higher education, the ability of students to think on their own, and the discovery of truth.