The Freedom of All Freedoms

By December 15, 2009

by Morgan Turner

When a person receives a college degree, he should leave his college or university with more than mere "book knowledge." He should progress beyond the ability to regurgitate facts and figures. That degree should serve as a physical representation of his journey through higher learning-in seeking answers, reasons, and awareness. Usually, in earlier educational endeavors, students are taught to "stay in line"and to follow rules. They are taught not to question authority or the reason things are the way they are. Higher education offers the opportunity to question and to identify not only what we, as people and as a society believe, but also why we believe what we do. Freedom is absolutely essential in this process of true "higher learning"-especially the freedom of speech.

Although the US Constitution protects freedom of speech, some educational institutions violate that freedom, resulting in the oppression of people’s beliefs and opinions, their very core. In order to maintain the democracy that distinguishes the United States, colleges and universities need to nurture individualism, not consume it. College graduates are the future of our country, and without free thinkers, we would be diminished. If people aren’t allowed to voice their opinions, protests, or beliefs, society loses its ability to be innovative, creative, and open to exploration of new ideas.

Universities that discipline students for expressing their freedoms are doing an injustice not only to the students, but also to the world in which the students will dwell after they receive their degree and enter the workforce. While enrolled, these students may feel as if they have no power to defend their rights against the "big" university; therefore, they may begin to conform their views to avoid retribution or disciplinary measures. The whole world loses when this occurs.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is helping students in their struggle to protect their freedom within the universities and colleges. When a student’s rights are violated by the university, FIRE provides students with assistance and legal counsel.

Many colleges and universities across the nation are guilty of hindering their students’ freedom of speech. For example, a few students from the College Republican group at San Francisco State University were protesting and expressing their anti-terrorism views by stomping on Hezbollah and Hamas flags. They were confronted by other classmates who felt this behavior was objectionable. Their objection centered on the fact that the word/symbol "God" appeared on one of the flags, and thus a desecration was taking place. Peacefully, the College Republicans allowed those students to alter the flag so that it no longer contained the word/symbol "God." Authorities at SFSU were not satisfied with the outcome, and began an investigation of the students responsible for the protest. After intense scrutiny, and with FIRE’s assistance, the College Republicans were acquitted. It was determined that the protesting students’ First Amendment rights were violated, since they had not been disrupting or causing harm to others, and were simply voicing their views and opinions in a diplomatic manner-even going so far as to be courteous and compromising to their disturbed peers. SFSU intervened when they should not have. The College Republicans weren’t posing a threat to anyone and, as the video stated, people "don’t have the right to not be offended."

Consider the case at the University of Delaware: initially unaware of the indoctrination attempt, students were required to participate in mandatory dormitory activities intended to coerce them to conform to a predisposed ideology. Those in opposition were rebuked and severely disciplined, and their right to freedom of speech was disregarded. But, with FIRE’s help, the program was exposed and subsequently terminated.

Valdosta State University is another illustration of a university intrusion into the rights of its students, predominantly when those students are expressing opposing viewpoints. As an example of this overstep, VSU has implemented a policy that overtly stomps on the First Amendments rights of its students by setting aside two hours each day when students can speak their minds, but only in what they’ve named, "the free speech zone." One particular VSU student, T. Hayden Barnes, strongly disagreed with the construction of a multi-level parking garage. He believed that it was unnecessary to build it, and that there were alternatives VSU should consider. VSU was determined to proceed, though, so Barnes felt compelled to distribute flyers in opposition, but he didn’t limit his protests to the confined area or designated time. Barnes obtained phone numbers from public information, and called numerous people associated with and/or in authority regarding the building of the garage. His intention was to persuade them to reconsider the construction, or to at least consider and investigate the concerns. The collage that he posted contained depictions of the parking garage, and on the header was the name of VSU’s President, Ronald Zaccari. This caught the attention of President Zaccari, as Barnes’ collage portrayed him as a "clear and present danger to the students." VSU bypassed all of their disciplinary steps, and expelled Barnes. This impetuous, unethical, and illegal decision was made simply because President Zaccari did not want a "stain on his legacy." This university completely ignored Barnes’ right to freedom of speech.

Universities are supposed to be the "Free Speech Zones" of society. An important purpose of the university experience is to teach students the diversity of businesses, ethnic groups, and cultures of the world. The college years are a time for individuals to set themselves apart, seek their ideal professions, immerse themselves in diversity, and truly understand their own values and beliefs to discover their true identities. It seems, though, that some colleges and universities are fearful of students being offended by other students’ challenges. Simply put: they think offense is dangerous to the well-being of the offended. Because of this misconception, the governing authorities implement rules controlling what students can and cannot say, in a misguided attempt to protect a select section of the student body, a section they’ve deemed to be unable, unwilling, or defenseless and weak. Perhaps their intent, whether subconsciously or overtly, is to protect their own fragile ideologies, thus maintaining an unchallenged authority. Perhaps it’s an innocent desire to come to the defense of the "underdog". Whatever the true reason, they may be surprised to find, as in the case of T. Hayden Barnes, the University of Delaware residents, and the SFSU student body, that students actually grow by examining what they believe, challenging their own paradigms and values, and revising, resolving, or reversing them while defending them. What an amazing opportunity to find inner strength and fortitude – a perfect climate in which to confirm or deny past beliefs! What a necessary time to mature.

Let the university authorities remember the wise words of our first President of the USA, George Washington, "If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter."