The Necessity of Debate

By January 31, 2014

This essay won second place in FIRE’s 2013 Essay Contest.

By Isabella Penola  

Imagine yourself as a young adult, a hard-earned college acceptance letter in hand, your heart full of excitement and fervent expectation. Impatient to dive into the next four-or-so years of learning and educational exchange of ideas, you set off to your chosen university. Yet when you arrive, you are dismayed to discover that, through the institution of confining “free speech zones,” your school restricts the healthy debate and intellectual exchange of ideas for which you so eagerly yearned. You learn that your university allows free speech, but only in a very limited area of the campus.

This may sound like a fabrication dreamed up by an Orwell-reading conspiracy theorist, but unfortunately it is a scenario in which many modern-day American college students find themselves. The University of Cincinnati is just one of dozens of colleges across the nation with restricted free speech zones, and countless other examples can be found of universities hindering students’ freedom of speech. It is becoming increasingly important for both students and American citizens to recognize these abridgments, understand the harm they cause, and take steps to eradicate them.

For example, take the disturbing case of Valdosta State University’s infringement of student Hayden Barnes’ freedom of speech. After learning of the construction of two new parking garages that would cost $30 million in student tuition fees, Barnes began posting flyers around the campus in protest. The university’s president, Ronald Zaccari, was upset by this and pushed for Barnes’ expulsion. While, ultimately, Barnes filed a federal lawsuit and reversed the expulsion with FIRE’s assistance, it is still deeply troubling that these actions were ever necessary. Since they are instituted by the government and therefore are required to abide by the First Amendment, not only is it explicitly illegal for public universities like Valdosta State to prohibit a student’s free speech, it is also detrimental to the causes for which colleges exist in the first place—education and the improvement of society. What happens when young adults, during the most malleable state of their lives, are forbidden from publicly questioning the beliefs of the administration that governs their education? A person who has been censored at such a formative, naturally defiant age will hardly undergo an immediate change directly after graduation, and it would be foolish to expect them to grow into the discerning citizenry willing to question authority that is required to bring out the best in a democratic republic.

After all, is the open exchange of ideas not an essential component to progress in almost any area of life? In our nation’s political processes, people discuss, persuade, and compromise, hoping to learn of a better solution through the debate, just as our Founders did during the Constitutional Convention. Our philosophical and economic leaders publish articles and reports which their contemporaries read and to which they respond with more improved concepts. In the realm of science and technology, hypotheses are exchanged and experiments are made based upon the research and experience of others, and the debate between different theories leads to greater advancements. Debate is one of the most basic, fundamental functions of humans; the ability to trade complex thoughts is what allows us to progress as a society. Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., said it well in his dissenting opinion to the 1919 court case Abrams v. United States:

But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas—that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the

market . . . .[1]

If our Founders decided-and we have upheld the belief—that the antagonistic trade of ideas is good enough for our governmental system, if it is commonly understood that scientific advancements are best made when ideas are exchanged between, tested by, and then built upon by multiple parties, then why would we allow the destruction of that principle in the institutions that are raising and educating our nation’s future political, scientific, and social leaders? In the end, the unfettered exchange of ideas—especially opposing ones—is the quintessentially American trait, the essence of education, the ideal of progress, the very reason why our nation has been so successful and why so many students dream of attending college in the first place. When a university’s leaders deny students the freedom to speak their minds, they are hindering the cause for which their institution was created and are directly harming our nation’s future.

While the mass flocking of high school graduates to colleges every year is a more recent phenomenon, places of higher learning have been historically respected as prestigious houses of intellect, honor, and the promulgation of free thought. It is that promise of expansion of knowledge and exchange of ideas that is so enticing to the young adults who eagerly desire to soak up their educations and use them to better their own lives and make an impact on the world. It is that principle that has allowed Americans to live under the ingenious, restrained system of government that they do, that has allowed Americans to make astonishing bounds in the world of scientific and technological progress, that has allowed Americans to have so much more material to teach to their young students. That is why it is absolutely crucial to our nation’s future for Americans to ensure that universities allow their students to speak freely, debate well, and contribute to the progress of society—or else we will find that that progress, and our liberty, has come to a grinding halt.


[1] Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616 (1919).