Kindle the Flame—The Fight to Protect Freedom of Expression

By on December 19, 2008

Ms. Laura Megan Fitzpatrick

America was founded on the idea that everyone has the right to express their views without fear of persecution. It stands to reason that American colleges and universities would be the vanguard in defending this right; after all, there is no better way to educate and expand the minds of young people than to encourage the free flow of ideas. However, too often these institutions not only fail to protect the First Amendment rights of their students, they blatantly violate First Amendment rights by restricting or punishing truly free speech on their campuses.

When a group of students at San Francisco State University held an anti-terrorism protest and stamped on the flags of the terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah, they were brought up on charges within the University system for "acts of incivility" and "attempting to incite violence." This type of protest is absolutely within the students’ rights, as it in no way encouraged violence against any individual, and was only intended to demonstrate the students’ position against terrorist organizations.

It may seem that part of the reason for SFSU’s reaction was a misguided attempt to address the concerns of Muslim students on campus who took issue with the accidental desecration of the Arabic word for "God" that is part of one of the flags, but this serves to highlight another pressing issue: Many times free speech is curtailed in the name of protecting one group or another from taking offense. It is vital that students in colleges and universities are able to challenge each others’ beliefs and learn to live alongside people who hold different views. The university system cannot and should not act as the play date chaperone who hovers over its students to protect them from hurt feelings; hurt feelings to some degree are part of discourse and the process of becoming an adult.

At the same time, it is incumbent upon all higher education institutions to clearly define the difference between speech protected by the First Amendment and speech that is subject to censorship because it poses a danger to others. It is a violation of the trust placed in the university for a school to respond with the type of knee-jerk reaction that SFSU displayed towards the students engaged in the anti-terrorism protest. Universities must make it a priority to encourage students to speak out and to share their opinions, not frighten them into silence with overreactions that erode confidence in their intellectual freedom on campus.

In the case of Hayden Barnes at Valdosta State University, Mr. Barnes was protesting the construction of a new parking garage in the form of an innocuous collage that he posted online. The president of the university felt he was being personally targeted by Mr. Barnes’ protest, and Hayden Barnes was expelled from the school. This wasn’t Valdosta’s first infringement on the civil rights of its students; Valdosta has a tiny "free speech zone" set far away from the main areas of the campus, where students must get permission from the University president before they express themselves and where that expression is subject to time restraints.

Mr. Barnes’ expulsion is the culmination of the university’s policy of threatening and restrictive policies toward students’ First Amendment rights. The school’s general attitude toward free speech is one of distrust, and, in Mr. Barnes’ case, open hostility. As in many cases of free speech suppression in universities, it would have been impossible for Valdosta to defend its actions in a court of law, as Barnes was simply exercising his right to peaceful protest and was not being disruptive. The school’s limitation of free speech to one area of the campus is also absurd; the university is supposed to be an establishment based on freedom of expression, and relegating such expression to a "zone" clearly sends the message that free thought is discouraged, and maybe even against the rules in other parts of the school. It is a testament to the power of freedom of speech and thought that these universities feel that it is necessary to restrict it in this manner, although in doing so they are essentially defeating the greatest benefit of the university system, that is, the unlimited pool of ideas and opinions upon which any student may draw.

The university should be a place where students feel absolutely safe in exercising their First Amendment rights, but many universities, fearing negative attention for student expression, curtail these rights. Groups like FIRE work on behalf of students by shifting the balance of power between universities and their students through measures to educate people about their rights and to bring violations of these rights to national attention if the institution refuses to rectify them. Through diligent effort by organizations and students, all universities can become the type of environments where diverse ideas flourish and where higher education can truly prepare students to be open, involved citizens.