On the Consequences of Oppressing Free Speech

By on December 15, 2009

by Danielle Wogulis

Since its inception, the United States of America has been the site of vicious battles for free speech. Freedom of expression provides a medium for intellectual, political, and cultural growth and discourse. Like all of our precious liberties, it is rarely granted without a struggle. The Constitution of the United States guarantees this right for all citizens, and yet the realization of this promise continues to be challenged today. Those who wish to voice their thoughts and opinions tend to face fierce opposition if they present a message that contradicts the popular consensus. The last place where free speech should be silenced is on college campuses, where young adults enroll in an institution allegedly designed to encourage the development of critical and independent thought. College campuses are ideal for articulating new ideas to the public, as the educational environment allows for constructive debate and discussion over the ideas and opinions that have been introduced. Unfortunately, the oppression of free speech pervades even these settings, such as the restrictive free speech zone at Valdosta State University and the Orwellian orientation program at the University of Delaware. Colleges and universities are, by nature, ideal for free speech, as they provide an environment where the ideas expressed can be tested and developed before they are introduced to society at large; therefore, the protection of free speech rights on college campuses is imperative to the advancement of American society.

The miniscule free speech zone and expulsion of T. Hayden Barnes from Valdosta State University epitomize the ridiculousness of stifling open expression in post-secondary institutions. The sheer audacity of Valdosta in limiting free speech so severely, to only a small fraction of both the space and time available, is appalling. The students’ knowledge of these limits has the consequence of discouraging not only public displays of free speech, but also the formation of varied opinions among the student population in the first place. Furthermore, the University’s rapid expulsion of Barnes for peacefully protesting the construction of a parking garage causes one to wonder why the administration is so frightened by one student exercising his right to freely express himself. The University seems to feel irrationally threatened by the products of the very minds that it is supposed to nurture and develop. The restrictions on free speech at Valdosta State created an environment that was counterproductive to the purpose of a university, which is to foster intellectual growth. In castigating Barnes for his protest of the parking garage, the University was willfully ignoring a viewpoint that was most likely held by more people than Barnes. Perhaps members of the community in which Valdosta State resides also disapproved of the exorbitant cost and environmental ramifications of the new parking garage. Therefore, Barnes’ expulsion was a direct violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution. The potential for public backlash against the parking garage construction proves that the university’s refusal to acknowledge the merits of Barnes’ position was not, as it claimed, an action against potential student violence, but rather a blatant display of self-interest and disregard for its students’ right to voice an opinion regardless of its popularity.

This oppression of free speech, while an atrocity in and of itself, is not nearly as appalling as the attempt to control the thought processes behind the positions expressed through free speech. The University of Delaware’s Office of Residence Life violated a more fundamental aspect of the constitutional right to free speech than the communication of ideas with its mandatory Orwellian orientation program. The program consisted of activities in the dormitories that were designed to control as opposed to encourage the development of the students’ ideas regarding critical social and political issues. The program attempted to indoctrinate the new students with mandates such as "[e]ach student will recognize that systematic oppression exists in our society,"and to force the students to conform to extremely specific beliefs regarding issues such as racism and oppression. Regardless of whether or not one agrees with the ideas that the University of Delaware presented in it, the program was completely inappropriate for an educational setting. Since the manner in which the ideological agenda was presented did not allow for a free and open discussion of its principles, the Office of Residence Life failed to facilitate the development of independent and critical thought. Moreover, the Orwellian program violated the First Amendment rights guaranteed to the students by oppressing the very formation of opinions that could and ought to be freely expressed. The students were not treated as individuals capable of making their own social and political judgments, which undermined their progress in becoming functional members of society. The program also detracted from the effectiveness of a democratic system because it produced students who were conditioned to rely on others to make decisions for them, and thus their decisions did not truly reflect their desires. By allowing the coercive orientation activities to persist, the University of Delaware failed to uphold its students’ constitutional rights to free speech and undermined their development into dynamic members of society.

Fortunately, organizations such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education exist to combat threats to free expression in education. The First Amendment right to free speech can only be guaranteed if threats against it are consistently and adamantly opposed, and colleges and universities are among the most crucial areas where this opposition must occur. Colleges, being microcosms of society, are responsible for cultivating individuals who can contribute to society in general with ideas, discoveries, and proactive engagement. Freedom of expression is vital in allowing students to gain confidence in the value of their opinion, engage in open debate and discussion and thus refine their positions constructively, and learn how to actively and peacefully advocate change where they see fit. Students who are allowed to freely express themselves in an educational setting will be better able to form educated opinions regarding social and political issues. In addition, if students are allowed and encouraged to be proactive when they notice a problem, then they will have the knowledge and ability to do so for the rest of their lives. Therefore, the most imperative action that a college or university can take in order to truly fulfill its purpose is to ensure that all students have the right to freely express themselves-in all places, and at all times.