Higher Education: Learning to Think Through Free Speech

By on December 19, 2008

Steven Joseph Zavala

Universities are meant to be places of higher learning, where one can go to not only receive an education, but also to mature as a person.  For inner growth to be truly successful, it is necessary that one is in an environment that encourages freedom of thought and speech.  Restricting either of these, as was done by San Francisco State University and Valdosta State University in the example videos, impedes the transfer and acquisition of the new ideas needed to become a more enlightened person.  For SFSU or VSU or any other university to have limits on its students’ speech is not only unlawful, it’s an action that negates their entire reason for being.

One of the reasons several of the colleges referenced in the "FIRE on Campus" introductory video gave for restricting their students’ right to free speech was that they were trying to prevent any offense that could be caused by the students’ words or actions.  While this could be seen as a noble actionthey are trying to prevent a form of duress and ensure the comfort of their pupilsprotecting students from being confronted with ideas and beliefs that they find offensive is preventing them from receiving the deeper character building education that is a university’s unparalleled offering.  An essential part of maturing as a person is the reevaluation of one’s beliefs after interacting with others with alternative mindsets.  If one still holds his or her guiding beliefs to be true, then he or she has achieved greater faith in his or her life’s philosophy. If one finds that he or she agrees with this new opinion, then the new opinion, whether right or wrong, is at least more informed than the previously held idea, since it was made after the individual took into consideration a greater number of possible viewpoints.  Either way, the person experiencing the internal conflict has become wiser.  Universities and colleges guilty of enforcing rules that prohibit certain types of ideas from being communicated are interfering with this important growth process.  They are sheltering students from thinking for themselves, which is a lesson that must be learned before one can really learn anything else.

Without the right to free speech, people cannot even be sure of their right to freely think.  If an individual is not allowed to express a dissenting viewpoint, as was Barnes’ case with VSU, than it is implied that the university, or whatever the censoring party may be, views the idea itself as being morally or objectively wrong.  Whether or not the idea is communicated to others or remains within someone’s mind, the university authorities would still consider it inappropriate, it just hasn’t had the chance to be put forth into a public setting where it could offend anyone.  This form of personal judgment on the part of the university extinguishes the spirit of the free exchange of ideas that universities are meant to foster by assigning values to ideas for its pupils rather than allowing them to determine the worth of the ideas on their own.  The rule-making body of the university is independently deciding that there are some things worth knowing and other things that aren’t, and that anyone who would want to inform others of the "inappropriate" things should be stopped from doing so.  An environment under an authority like this makes the pursuit of knowledge an absurd task, since it is impossible to know just how much information has been collected by isolated individuals on campus that has not been communicated to others because of the fear of censorship due to perceived offensiveness.

Another unforeseen consequence of the restriction of free speech by a place of higher learning is the possibility that the students come to believe that restrictions of freedom are necessary sacrifices for a comfortable life.  They may continue to hold this belief after they graduate and resign themselves to censorship measures that they encounter later in life.  Any dissenting or disturbing ideas that an affected person was later confronted with could be immediately shut out without consideration because the unorthodox nature of the ideas sets off the former student’s ingrained censor. Beyond lessening the growth of students’ minds, controlling speech during their college years could actively stunt them forever.     

Free speech has been established by the United States Constitution as an essential part of a free society and a higher education.  Without it, one is not allowed to achieve one’s fullest potential.  Restricting what people are allowed to say restricts what they can think.  It limits their world.  It violates the founding ideas of our nation.  A school cannot honestly claim that it is restricting the way its students express themselves for their benefit.  It’s true that there are some topics that are awkward to discuss.  Some people may be offended when talking about them.  Some may become genuinely angry.  But that’s alright.  It’s a part of growing up.  We get angry, we get over it, and, hopefully, we learn something in the process.  All I want is my opportunity to be offended.