by Emily Snell
In a 1909 speech, “The Meaning of a Liberal Education,” future president Woodrow Wilson described “the life of the present day” as “incalculably complex” and that “learning is correspondingly complex.” One hundred and five years later, life’s complexity has soared. With increasing globalization, all issues are interrelated and entangled. We have wars, health crises, humanitarian issues, environmental problems, immigration questions, trade disputes, and more. None of these has a simple solution.
To address these issues, we must be able to discuss them thoroughly, weigh pros and cons, and examine and evaluate different opinions and points of view. In short, we must think critically. Colleges and universities exist for that very purpose: to teach students to approach the world with these tools and find solutions where they exist. But attempts to abridge and restrict first amendment rights eliminate the opportunity to learn. Schools that censor free speech, especially that of students, prevent students from hearing all sides of an issue. In many cases, public, government-funded schools silence all opposition to an idea, endorsing it and forbidding any dissent. This flies in the face of the schools’ very reason for existence and of the law of our land. It is wholly incompatible with all we and the schools stand for. And it must stop.
It starts with censorship of student speech, abhorrent enough on its own. For example, in September 2014, Montclair State University in New Jersey fined a pro-Palestine student organization for distributing “political” and “offensive” pamphlets. In doing so, the public university not only trampled on the first amendment, which gives “pure” political speech highest regard, but also shut down the potential of discussion. Attempting to stop the group from sending out pamphlets eliminated the opportunity for students to hear and consider both sides of the issue. Montclair effectively endorsed the opposite, pro-Israel camp, threatening its students with financial penalties if they dared to have and express other views.
Clearly, the political aspect was the key issue. But what about the complaint that the pamphlets were “offensive”? This imaginary right to never be offended or have your views challenged is what results from oppressive speech codes. On December 7th, University of Iowa president Sally Mason sent a letter to the campus community regarding a controversial statue portraying a Klansman. Incredibly, she supported censoring the art on the grounds that some students reported feeling “unwelcomed” and that some “fear[ed] for their safety.”
Ms. Mason’s letter shows a basic misunderstanding of the purpose of a university. She contends that it must make every single student feel “welcome” and “respected.” But what about fostering intelligent discussion? What if, instead of removing the statue, the university took advantage of the controversy to foster actual debate over the issues it represented? The statue did precisely what art as speech is intended to—make people think. The university, on the other hand, failed in its stated mission, which is, in part, “to educate students for success.” How are students to succeed in the real world when all their lives, they have been coddled and taught that if they didn’t like something, the best solution was to demand that it be taken away?
It gets worse. The removal of the statue was not censorship of student speech, but censorship of a visiting professor’s speech. This is yet another frightening result of anti-first amendment environments—it starts with students whose opinions are deemed non-politically correct, then spreads to professors, administrators, visiting speakers, and anyone else who dares voice an “offensive” opinion.
What follows is no surprise. Hecklers’ vetoes run rampant. Speakers are interrupted, shouted down, or “uninvited” for fear that a student might be unhappy. Free speech is sacrificed for the sake of students not being troubled by other viewpoints. Professors are asked not to teach certain elements of the curriculum—rape law in the Harvard Law School, for example—for the sake of not disturbing students. Education and educational opportunities are thrown away and the Constitution ignored.
Thankfully, these battles are being won. A federal judge struck down an unconstitutional “free speech zone” at the University of Cincinnati, finding it far beyond the acceptable time, place, and manner restrictions. This decision upholds students’ rights to interact with fellow students to discuss important issues. And at the University of Delaware, an invasive orientation program has been suspended, protecting the students’ privacy and freedom of conscience. But winning the battles is one thing, winning the war, another.
Few universities eliminate unconstitutional speech codes on their own initiative; in most cases, it takes court action to stop them. New speech codes are being put into place across the nation. And the idea that we have a right to not be offended or to not have our ideas challenged is spreading. It starts with censorship of student speech, but doesn’t stop there—censoring others often follows. Speech codes are only the first domino in a long chain that leads to oppression and a world disturbingly similar to that of Big Brother.
Censorship isn’t just a problem because it threatens the integrity of institutes of higher education, or infringes student rights. It’s a problem because of what that means for the world. If colleges and universities continue to violate student rights, thus denying them an education in which they are forced to listen to other viewpoints, these students will never learn to think critically and be able to address today’s issues.
How are students at Harvard, for example, to develop informed opinions on immigration issues if controversial anti-immigration activists like Jim Gilchrist are banned from panel discussions, so they never hear about that position? How are students to develop critical thinking skills when the administration ensures that they’ll never have to encounter anything that makes them feel uncomfortable or offends them? It’s simple: they can’t.
By denying students their first amendment rights, schools are denying us a generation of leaders capable of true thought. That is why free speech is important at colleges and universities. For their sake—and for ours.