This essay was a third place winner in FIRE’s 2012 Essay Contest.
By Hannah Dent
“If the freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” Though George Washington said this over two hundred years ago, it still holds true today. Many Americans believe free speech is protected everywhere, especially on college campuses, which seem to serve as hotspots for controversial debates and protests. But this basic right is being denied to students across the nation. Many universities try to dictate which ideas their students are allowed to think and express, administering harsh punishment upon students who do not comply with the accepted way of thinking.
The purpose of higher education is ultimately to prepare young minds to enter the workforce and the world with the knowledge and open minds they will need to succeed. But many schools are too busy practicing political correctness to encourage their students to freely share and spread ideas. Albert Einstein once said, “The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.” Just as his school in Germany restricted what would later become one of the brightest minds in the world, so too do many modern American universities suppress their students’ education through censorship of free speech. Students have to be allowed to make up their own minds; they cannot merely be receptors of standardized notions of right and wrong. They must be exposed to more than the ‘acceptable’ or ‘appropriate’ half of the world. If our students are only programmed to accept and repeat the thoughts of some higher power, they will be ill-equipped to deal with a world of unscripted predicaments and harsh realities.
College is supposed to be a place where students are free to explore ideas and broaden their minds. Unfortunately, the reality is often very different. Take, for example, the case of Keith John Sampson, a student-employee at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). One day Sampson brought a book, Notre Dame vs. the Klan, to work to read during his break. His coworkers reacted strongly to the title, complaining that the book was about the Ku Klux Klan, though the book is actually anti-Klan. Days later, Sampson found himself formally accused of racial harassment by the Affirmative Action Office. According to the formal report, Sampson did not endorse the Klan’s views or even try to raise a discussion about the Klan with his coworkers. He was shocked by the allegation, and it took eight months and the repeated efforts of both the ACLU and FIRE for IUPUI to fully retract the charges and remove the accusation from Sampson’s file. This is unacceptable. Colleges are supposed to encourage the pursuit of knowledge, not punish it.
In Sampson’s case, his guilt was decided before any of his accusers bothered to listen to his defense. When free speech is condemned rather than protected, it allows a single authority to determine what is right or wrong. But absolute power often corrupts absolutely. Students are no longer guided, but are fed implicit messages of what has been preapproved to say and think, and what has not. They are told that certain ideas are so “wrong” that they cannot be discussed or expressed in public, even in refutation. If left unchecked, this leads to a campus-wide oppression and silence of any ideas in disagreement with commonly accepted opinion.
And so a single person or group can rise and dictate students’ thoughts, can even try to brainwash students. This may sound like something out of a dystopian novel, but it has happened before. At the University of Delaware, freshmen were forced to take part in a yearlong indoctrination program until it was finally exposed and shut down. The university contended that all students were inherently racist and oppressive and must be ‘cured’ of their evil tendencies. This sounds menacing enough in theory; in practice, it was even worse. On the very first day, students were made to admit their views on controversial topics such as politics, sexuality, and religion in front of the entire group. Students of one opinion stood on one side of the room, and those of another opinion stood on the other side, physically separating the group by their beliefs. No one was allowed to explain their position. Throughout the year, resident advisers repeatedly evaluated students for tolerance and repentance of racist or sexist family members. The best and worst cases, along with the general guidelines for ‘acceptable’ beliefs, were published in a two-inch-thick handbook that was kept locked away from public eyes. The entire program was kept under wraps until a few faculty members and FIRE investigated rumors they had heard from the freshman class, and were shocked at what they found.
Such a totalitarian display directly goes against the values America was founded on, values such as freedom of expression, freedom of opinion, and the right to deviate from the standard. The founding fathers designed our nation to support a society that wasn’t afraid to stand up for itself. They would shudder to see a world in which some campuses restrict protests and speeches to miniscule ‘free speech zones’ and students can be expelled for calling attention to the corruption they see at their school. If America allows her students to be conformed to the will of those in power, she will raise a mindless generation, incapable of meaningful discussion or debate—a generation powerless to take advantage of the democracy our country depends on.
As Americans, we believe that the rights to freely think and speak are fundamental human rights. As such, these rights must be protected everywhere, especially on college campuses. We cannot hope to form the next generation of thinkers and innovators if our students only think in predetermined patterns and avoid controversial ideas altogether, if our universities do not permit them to explore their world and their own ideas. Our students must be guaranteed free speech, open-minded education, and the courage to always fight for what is right.