This essay won first place in FIRE’s 2013 Essay Contest.
By Kanitta Kulprathipanja
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Without the freedom of speech, this is what would remain of my essay if someone in a position of power disagreed with my argument. Thanks to the U.S. Constitution, and those who defend it, it looks like this instead:
Imagine a country in which a student can get penalized for reading a book, one in which legal adults are banned from asking each other on dates, and peacefully disagreeing with an authority figure could result in suspension. Many Americans would immediately form an image of an oppressive dictatorship. Their minds may run through a list of countries with the worst freedom of speech. But these harsh injustices did not occur in North Korea, Turkmenistan, or Eritrea. They occurred in Francis Scott Key’s “land of the free,” the United States of America. At a time in their lives when students most desperately need to explore and expand their minds, a lack of freedom hinders their ability to grow as both students and citizens of the U.S.A.
Many students dread reading history books. However, if one takes the time to read them, he or she learns valuable information about the past, as well as gains the ability to apply what they have learned to the present and future. At Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis, Keith John Sampson was found guilty for racial harassment. He was not given a hearing. The so-called harassment was the simple act of reading. Sampson was found with the book Notre Dame Vs. The Klan. The administration judged the book without realizing it was an anti-Klan historical account, and promptly took action. Regardless of the book’s nature, the school’s punishment against Sampson infringed upon his freedom, something we as Americans value as a basic right. If we allow institutions to prevent students from doing something as basic as reading a history book, not only do we stunt their knowledge, but we prevent them from being able to learn from the mistakes of the past. The United States has flaws. As its citizens, we need to grow past these mistakes and build a better future. To do this, we must use every resource to its fullest. Colleges must allow students their freedom so that our most important resource, our people, will be prepared to help our nation grow.
Unfortunately, colleges do not always treat students as adults that possess the ability to make such changes in the world. Rather, they attempt to belittle students and their ideas. They suppress what students can say or do in order for the campus to run the way they seem fit. At Colorado College, students can get in trouble for saying something embarrassing; Davidson previously rendered asking someone on a date as sexual harassment. If students can get in trouble for something this trivial, what happens when they say something a little more serious? Unfortunately, Hayden Barnes found out how little his freedom of speech meant to Valdosta when he attempted to raise discussion about the president’s use of student money. The president planned to spend forty million dollars on a parking garage. Barnes did not find this a worthwhile use of his money, and he protested against the cause. The president attempted to have him removed from the university as a result. The president’s actions clearly display the unfortunate truth that the administrations of some schools attempt to silence the free speech of their students. As a result, a student that publicly argues his or her opinion gets punished for standing up for himself or herself. This behavior rewards a lack of critical thinking and analysis in students, something the school should encourage. Students who critically analyze the world possess the ability to see the possibility for improvement; the kind of students these schools encourage only possess the ability to agree with those in charge, if the students even pay attention at all. If we as a country want to grow, we need citizens like Barnes, who feel comfortable challenging ideas and looking for the best options. We cannot allow these students to disappear simply because those in charge of our institutions feel threatened.
Free speech on college campuses is not only a must, it is a right. College brings huge changes in the life of a student. Students learn a lot during the years they spend there: about the past, about the world, and about themselves. Preventing free speech stunts their ability to gain this knowledge. It punishes those who seek to improve the world; it encourages a lack of critical thinking. College students need to explore and learn to become better citizens for the future. In order for the United States to continue to grow, we must continue to fight for our freedoms, including free speech on college campuses.