In Clear and Present Danger: The State of Personal Liberty in America’s Universities

By December 15, 2009

by Andrew David King

In 1831, the French government sent young politician Alexis de Tocqueville to the United States to observe the nation’s systems and culture. "In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion," he wrote in the book that explained his experience, Democracy in America (1835). "Within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them." Nearly two centuries after the publication of Tocqueville’s report, it would be ideal to declare that American society, especially in education, had demolished such barriers, but it would not be true. Throughout many of America’s universities today-centers founded as bastions of free thought and expression-institutionalized assaults on individual rights continue to occur. Although these attacks go unnoticed by many, the facts are becoming clearer and the consequences of inaction more striking than ever before.

Recent instances at universities in the United States illustrate methods by which academic institutions attempt to exercise control over not only their students’ speech but thought. At the University of Delaware in 2007, the administrators of student residence implemented a mandatory program that propagated a radical left-wing ideology through a series of activities-including a discussion in which students were to acknowledge that American society was oppressive, and offer solutions to this supposed fact. Whereas the oppressiveness of America is a debatable topic, what is undoubtedly oppressive is when authority figures force their opinions on those whom they are designated to lead. "In a free society, if you want to change people’s opinions, you need to rely on the power of your words-in this case, the university relied instead on coercion, force, and threats," said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. Eventually, under scrutiny from FIRE and the public, the university terminated the program.

Although the situation at the University of Delaware posed a direct threat to the freedom of expression and belief, no student was removed from the university for airing his frustrations. However, when Hayden Barnes, a student at Valdosta State University in Georgia, sought out president Ronald Zaccari in 2007 to discuss his opposition to the construction of multi-million-dollar parking facilities on campus, he was harassed by the university’s executive administration, including Zaccari himself, for his views. When it was discovered that Barnes posted a collage satirizing the issue online, he was told that he had been "administratively withdrawn" from the university. In FIRE’s documentary about Barnes’ case, First Amendment rights lawyer Robert Corn-Revere commented on the actions of the university, saying, "As is often the case when individuals express views that policymakers or decision-makers don’t like, rather than taking those views into account and making a decision, the officials at Valdosta State, and in particular its President, decided it would be a better idea to try and silence that voice."

Valdosta State University’s history of free speech on campus was notably dismal even before the incident involving Barnes. The university’s free speech zone constituted less than one percent of the entire campus and was available for only two hours each day. Comparatively disconcerting is the fact that, in recent decades, free speech zones have proliferated so much as to appear at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, where fenced enclosures bring to mind the restriction, not appreciation, of freedom. In an Orwellian twist, these areas used to contain those exercising their First Amendment rights are not called free speech restriction zones but officially "free speech zones," a see-through attempt at sugarcoating the underlying concept. It is no surprise that colloquial slang has created another name to refer to these regions: free speech cages.

It is highly damaging to the larger academic community for a university to stifle the speech of its students to any extent. By trying to forcefully alter the opinions of individuals, colleges encourage a culture of self-repression, and create an environment in which complacent students go unnoticed or awarded, while honest people-regardless of the legitimacy of their statements-are punished for expressing their ideas. It is contrary to intellectual progress and integrity to subvert individuals of any persuasion into accepting a social code with subjective parameters clearly intended to mold any obtuseness into regularity. University of Delaware Professor Jan Blits, criticizing the indoctrination occurring at his university, said, "The long-term effect [of such programs] is to teach conformity, that students should not think for themselves, they should follow the dictates of some authority."

In a similar way, such strict enforcement of speech codes and other overreaching behavioral standards actually backfires on universities through both direct and indirect effects-negating whatever benefits an institution might hope to gain through censorship. Philosopher John Stuart Mill, in On Liberty (1859), wrote of the double-edged effect of silencing views: "If the opinion is right, [the censoring party is] deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error." The reduction of academic conversation in universities to endorsed viewpoints produces equivalent results: the lack of reference points by which to judge the merits of arguments, and subsequently the decreased visibility of the student body’s diversity of thought.

Equally fallacious as attempts to erase unwelcome opinions from campuses is the notion that free speech can exist in regulated form. By definition, the phrase "free speech" implies expression without restrictions on content. Either free speech is allowed, or it is not-there can be no gray area. However, university administrations have often sacrificed intellectual openness for order and the propagation of particular agendas. Whether these agendas incorporate sparing leaders from criticism, as in the case of Valdosta State University, or impeding an ideology, as with the University of Delaware, it makes no difference: the detrimental effects on the lives of students, and on the atmosphere and values of universities, are virtually the same. "We charge [our nation's universities] with preparing future citizens for participation in the life of a free and productive society," stated Alan Charles Kors and Harvey A. Silverglate, co-founders of FIRE, in their book, The Shadow University (1998). Indeed, American society does delegate this responsibility to its colleges, and allows them to formulate their own systems to fulfill this expectation. However, this trust is too frequently abused, and both students and the quality of universities suffer.

According to its procedures, Valdosta State University reserved the right to ban speech it judged a "clear and present danger" from its free speech zone. The question I postulate is this: Which is more dangerous, the occasional issuing of controversial or offensive statements by students, or the placement of free expression under the jurisdiction of administrations with sociopolitical agendas? The respective cases of Hayden Barnes and the indoctrination program at the University of Delaware grimly indicate the latter. "In a nation whose future depends upon an education in freedom, colleges and universities are teaching the values of censorship, self-censorship, and self-righteous abuse of power," warned Kors and Silverglate. Yet, despite the disturbing events of the present, with the help of organizations like FIRE and honest individuals whose certainty of their own rights surpasses their fear of retribution, it is not too late to take steps to reverse the events that are quickly eroding the groundwork of America’s finest institutions of higher learning.