Freedom of Speech: “Knowledge in the Making”

By December 19, 2008

Matthew Thomas Hancock

"Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making." These words, from John Milton’s "Areopagitica," although 400 years old, sum up the purpose of a universitya place where students can feel safe to debate, to research, and to form opinions about their world. Universities that encourage students to become engaged citizens uphold our democracy. If a student can’t actively fight for justice, how will the injustices ever be fixed? A college campus, of all places, should be the first to protect and promote the freedom of expression essential to a democracy, but not all do; some limit expression and expel students for engaging in political and social protests. These institutions replace freedom of discourse with censorship. Campuses must provide a safe environment in which students engage freely in debates, without the fear of humiliation and expulsion. All of our great writers and philosophersironically, the ones we study at the universitywarn us against complacency when our freedoms are threatened. From Socrates to Milton to Thoreau to Gandhi, all the heroes we emulate tell us to question the status quo.

Unfortunately, in spite of the fact that every American student is guaranteed the right to the Constitution’s First Amendment, some campuses violate it; San Francisco State University (SFSU) is one of those campuses. SFSU put the College Republicans on trial at the University for demonstrating against terrorism. During the protest, the College Republicans stepped on paper representations of terrorist organizations. This demonstration upset several Muslim students, who, in turn, filed a formal complaint against the College Republicans. Luke Sheahan, a representative of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), writes that the complaint claimed the College Republicans "[incited] violence." It is true that violence may result from demonstrations, but as Martin Luther King, Jr., said, "We must come to see, as federal courts have consistently affirmed, that it is immoral to urge an individual to withdraw his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest precipitates violence."

It is legal in the United States to protest. In fact, it is legal in the United States to burn the American flag, as proved in the Supreme Court case Texas v. Johnson, so stepping on any flag is legal protest. In spite of legality, SFSU continued with their charges even though the College Republicans had the law on their side, and this is when FIRE stepped in. FIRE wrote numerous letters to SFSU’s president Robert A. Corrigan. One stated, "A public university such as SFSU should not investigateand cannot lawfully punishstudents for engaging in expression that is unquestionably protected by the First Amendment." The university, however, continued with its investigation and set a date for the College Republicans’ hearing, where they were acquitted of all charges. Without organizations like FIRE, students tried in these types of cases would be convicted. Eventually, students would be too afraid to fight for what they believe in, even though their constitutional rights guarantee them freedom to demonstrate peacefully.

Valdosta State is another campus that violated a student’s right to free speech and free expression; that student is Hayden Barnes. Barnes set out to peacefully protest the building of a parking garage, but found himself kicked out of school for it. Barnes started his protest by informing students and contacting officials; he made posters and flyers, nothing incendiary. Barnes’ next step was to contact the President of Valdosta State. Instead of getting the meeting he had hoped for, he found himself called to the president’s office immediately to talk about how inappropriate his protest was.

Surprised by the criticism over his actions, Barnes certainly had no idea what was coming next. The President of Valdosta State told him that the parking garage project had been in the works for years, and that Barnes would have no influence on the expected outcome. Barnes returned home shocked. He had done nothing wrong: he hadn’t incited violence or harassed anyone. Everything he did was guaranteed to him by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

To vent his anger, Barnes created a collage, a satire of the parking garage, and posted it on his Facebook page. He didn’t recruit students to protest, but instead, in an act of passive protest, did it peacefully and creatively. When this collage got back to the Valdosta State President, it caused Barnes’ expulsionBarnes returned to his dorm on May 7, 2007, and found a letter from the president stating that he had been kicked out of college. The letter stated that he had become a "clear and present danger to the campus." How could a licensed paramedic armed with a collage be a "clear and present danger" to anyone? Once again FIRE stepped in.

FIRE persistently wrote letters to Valdosta explaining that the university had no legal basis to support what they had done to Hayden Barnes. Because of the pressure provided by FIRE, Barnes was permitted to return to campus "if he pleased." Who would want to return to a university after expulsion for a collage? Though Hayden was kicked out of school, he may live knowing that he fought for what he believes in.

Campuses across America which incriminate and threaten their students make them too frightened to ever challenge majority thinking. In Civil Disobedience Henry David Thoreau says, "A very fewas heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and menserve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it." The College Republicans at San Francisco State and Hayden Barnes at Valdosta State were men who peacefully protested what they believed in and, in turn, were treated as enemies by their universities. Today’s students will be tomorrow’s leaders, and if colleges teach them to blindly obey and follow what is "accepted," that will be tomorrow’s leadership. America wasn’t founded on blindly following the majority; it was founded on expressing individual beliefs and speaking out against injustice. Colleges need to foster these rights and uphold democracy.