Keeping the Marketplace of Ideas Open in Schools

By December 16, 2011

This essay was a runner up in FIRE’s 2011 "Freedom in Academia" Essay Contest.

By Zachary Trama

Former United States Supreme Court Justice William Brennan Jr. once referred to America as a marketplace of ideas. Picturing his metaphor in a literal sense brings to mind a gigantic, Wal-Mart-sized venue where ideas can be bought and sold in the free market. The shelves of the marketplace are wide and varied. They are stocked with popular ideas and unpopular ones. There is space for approval and dissent. There is room for eloquence and vulgarity. The only rule is that there are no rules; they are all allowed to be there.

While Justice Brennan used the term in 1965, the principle behind it was born more than two hundred years earlier. The nation’s founding fathers understood that in order to have a country that effectively turns ideas into policies, the free exchange of all ideas must be protected. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution made this philosophy the law of the land in 1791.

Today’s educational system is a perfect example of what can result from protecting the freedom of speech. Allowing a diverse body of ideas is essential to maintaining the beautiful diversity that America is known for. Schools need to produce both statisticians and artists. They need to produce both Democrats and Republicans. They need to produce both prosecutors and public defenders.

To truly keep the freedom of speech in schools alive, it must be maintained even when doing so seems inconvenient. Ideas that fall within the mainstream are never the ones that put our free speech protection to the test. It is dissent and controversial thought that try how deeply we value the freedom of speech.

When faced with this test, Valdosta State University failed. Hayden Barnes only wanted the school to make decisions that were friendlier to the environment. When he shared this idea, he was hit with the difficult realization that it could only be shared on one small section of the campus labeled as the school’s “free-speech zone.” When the idea caused tension between Barnes and the university’s president, Barnes was removed from the university.

Protest speech at Valdosta was relegated to a free speech zone for a clear reason. It is in the nature of protests that their message may be one of controversy, one that not everybody wants to hear. Wishing to cleanse the campus of unpopular messages, Valdosta State put free speech in a vice, turning it as tightly as they could without eliminating it altogether. As proved in the case of Hayden Barnes, even the expression that takes place within the free speech zone may be subject to more content-based restriction. The Hayden Barnes incident showed just how far the school’s president, Ronald Zaccari, was willing to go to silence a lone dissenter.

The University of Delaware failed its incoming classes as well. These new students weren’t even given a chance to form ideas before they were bombarded with a concisely stated and often repeated set of beliefs that they were all expected to share. The idea for this indoctrination came straight from the school’s top Residence Life directors, with an obvious goal in mind: Make every student’s views the same.

Proactively eliminating diverse ideas about controversial subjects is an abhorrent practice. The University of Delaware Residence Life program sought to systematically weed out touchy conversations before they were even had. Those who may have had different views than the ones being dictated soon realized that they were in the minority. By the end of orientation, the point was hammered home, and their ideas were flushed down the spiral of silence.

While the policies of Delaware and Valdosta State were different, the effect was the same. New or unpopular ideas were crushed. Whether they were pushed out of sight or overpowered by indoctrination, they were removed from the marketplace. Students felt less free to explore their educational boundaries, and scholarship stayed inside the box. Exploratory thinking was discouraged.

It is imperative that the leaders of educational institutions understand that these are the exact freedoms that allow their schools to function in the first place. When schools ignore this, they can enact policies that send a destructive message: “at this school, speech will only be free when it is convenient.” This is the absolute wrong direction for policies to move. Entire campuses should be free speech zones. Inside the borders of campus, there should be no borders to the freedom of speech and expression. The first day of college should not be meant to force all students into the same school of thought. It should be exactly the opposite. Students should learn from their orientation that their class is a diverse body of young minds and that this diversity is invaluable.

At a glance, it may seem convenient for college and university leaders to eliminate the discomfort of controversy. But this line of thinking overlooks a critical truth: America first surfaced from under a whirlwind of controversy. Her founding fathers were the dissenters of the day. It was their dissent that helped set in stone the values on which the nation still rests today. Undercutting freedom to silence dissent is not only flawed as a matter of policy, but it is un-American. It is on the shoulders of all American educators to, as economists would say, strengthen the marketplace of ideas by allowing as much competition as possible.