Free Speech Essay Contest featured winner: Michelle Wei

February 12, 2019

This week and last, we are featuring winning essays from our 2018-2019 Free Speech Essay Contest. Michelle Wei is a junior at Desert Vista High School in Phoenix, Arizona. Her essay is below.

Where There Is No Darkness

In 1949, George Orwell published his novel 1984, in which he introduced the bleak dystopia of Oceania. The fictional world where government controls every aspect of life — from what people can say to how people think to whether or not certain individuals exist — continues to haunt today’s readers. Why does 1984 create such a lasting impact? By illustrating the horrors of human life without free will, Orwell compels readers to recognize the importance of preserving each individual’s right to express themselves. If people cannot think independently and exchange ideas with others, society becomes a malleable collective capable of accepting any contradiction and injustice. 1984 does not evoke true horror through its scenes of psychological torture or mind control, but through its suggestion that the nightmare may become reality if humanity remains compliant with censorship.

Modern colleges appear to be a far cry from Oceania. Instead of sinister torture chambers and omnipresent surveillance, today’s campuses boast lofty lecture halls and elegant classrooms designed for students to learn in. Unfortunately, with respect to free speech, parallels exist between these seemingly polar opposite worlds. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), 10% of surveyed colleges in the U.S. use free speech zones to limit students’ First Amendment rights. Students cannot freely express their views outside of a miniscule space on campus, and even within these designated areas, free speech is not guaranteed. Demonstrating the alarming injustice of these restrictions, Pierce College barred Kevin Shaw, a student and the chapter president of Young Americans for Liberty (YAL), from recruiting for YAL outside the free speech zone.

In addition to infringing on students’ rights of expression, modern college environments often prohibit controversial individuals from speaking on campus. Zach Wood, the president of the organization Uncomfortable Learning at Williams College, was just one of the increasing number of student leaders who faced resistance when inviting guest speakers to share their views. Because they thought that his views were inflammatory and disrespectful, Williams College administrators disinvited John Derbyshire when Uncomfortable Learning tried to schedule a speech. Colleges should be places where students broaden their minds through exposure to a wide array of viewpoints. By banning certain opinions, colleges forego learning in favor of an inoffensive facade.

A social litmus test, the resistance encountered by student-run organizations like Uncomfortable Learning and Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) indicates the prevalence of conflicting ideals on a larger scale. Disputes over free speech zones and disinvited speakers on college campuses stem from American society’s division over a plethora of issues. College students, especially those who are new to adulthood and independence, may feel lost in a turbulent sea of opinions, uncertain of what views they should hold. For these individuals, free speech acts as a box of matches, illuminating a path through an otherwise dark and unfamiliar land. Because it encourages people to contribute their ideas, free speech catalyzes discussions that advance understanding. Striking a match provides the friction necessary for it to ignite; the clash of opposing viewpoints prompts the critical thinking conducive to gaining deeper insight on a topic. By challenging students to question the validity of their convictions, free speech pushes the boundaries that they subconsciously set for themselves, ultimately imparting a stronger sense of direction in a convoluted world. Restricting free speech on college campuses deprives students of the main benefit of a liberal education: the skills necessary to face complexity and change. Desperately hanging on to what they are familiar with, students barred from intellectual debate wander in darkness with nothing to light their way.

Limiting free speech creates a dangerous mentality on college campuses. If students constantly witness the censorship of voices that are seen as too radical, they would begin to tolerate such violations of the First Amendment. Instead of viewing freedom of speech as inalienable to every individual, students would think that those with “unacceptable” beliefs should be deprived of their right to express themselves.

An environment that represses dissent inhibits intellectual growth because progress is made by challenging the majority. As seen from the historical cases of abolition and women’s suffrage, small fringe groups can become movements that triumph against injustice. Discouraged from expressing unpopular viewpoints, people feel compelled to follow the majority even when they know that the majority is wrong. Society cannot improve unless it gives a voice to individuals who recognize its faults.

In defense of speech codes, some argue that college administrations should censor individuals with offensive views because students should be protected from material that degrades their intellect. However, it is the speech codes themselves, instead of the controversial opinions they ban, that open a door to further oppression. Arguing against Parliament’s censorship laws, John Milton defends freedom of expression in his treatise “Areopagitica”: “If we think to regulat[e] Printing, thereby to rectif[y] manners, we must regulat[e] all recreations and pastimes … ” In other words, one cannot justify censorship in only certain areas without removing the entire population’s rights to speak out. Although “Areopagitica” was written more than 300 years ago, Milton’s argument applies to today’s society. No consistent standard exists for judging whether or not something should be censored on college campuses. Administrations claim to only ban offensive speakers, but each individual differs in what they consider “offensive.” Censorship in higher education shows that institutions can rely on subjectivity to defend violations of Constitutional rights. What stops other organizations from exploiting the precedent set by colleges? Speech codes pose a danger to democracy that extends past the campus.

Free speech liberates our minds, providing an avenue through which we can continuously be challenged with new ideas. If we refuse to venture outside of our comfort zone, we prevent ourselves from further learning; our current knowledge traps us into ignorance. Striving to gain a complete understanding, instead of adhering to a view skewed by our own desires, is the only action that brings us closer to the truth.