Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, decried the state of First Amendment rights on college campuses in the Wall Street Journal last week. He cited several examples in which school administrations curtailed freedom of speech in order to avoid conflict.
When Fordham University’s College Republicans invited the controversial conservative pundit Ann Coulter to speak on campus, the university’s president opposed the measure so forcefully that the group rescinded the invitation.
When Tufts University students published excerpts from the Quran and facts about the status of women in Saudi Arabia during Islamic Awareness Week, the content was deemed in violation of the school’s policy against the holding of “sexist attitudes.”
These policies are more restrictive than the national limitations on speech. Coulter can say whatever she wants in public or on TV. Even a driver who gives the bird to a policeman is protected under the First Amendment.
Although official policies can crack down on free speech to an extent, there are two areas in which free speech on campus and in society at large continues to thrive: popular entertainment and formal debate.
In Stalin’s Russia, during some of free speech’s darkest days, pop culture evaded traditional controls on expression. The ruling party purged the nation of potential dissidents. Forget freedom of the press — chess and hiking clubs, YMCAs, youth organizations and Catholic institutions of any kind were shut down.
But, as Anne Applebaum writes in “Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe,” popular entertainment eluded repression. Symbolic lyrics or metaphorical images are harder for policies to target. Eastern European cinema, for instance, remained vibrant during the Cold War.
One of the most significant tools in the U.S. Cold War arsenal was pop culture. Teenagers in East Berlin were just as enthusiastic about rock ‘n’ roll as English and American kids were. The CIA led a covert operation to disseminate American writing, dance, theater, music and rock ‘n’ roll. In these art forms, communism found a formidable foe.
On the U campus, poetry slams, art shows and battles of the bands give wide exposure to opinions that might not pass administrative ire in more official media outlets. So, too, does the Union Free Speech Zone, which few people know about or take advantage of.
The campus debate team takes the opposite approach to avoiding censorship — the team maintains such a disciplined approach to constructive discussion that no policy would find fault with it.
“The debate community is aggressive about saying that more discussion is better,” said Michael Middleton, director of Utah Forensics, the speech and debate team.
But in debate, process is more important than content, Middleton said.
That process, Middleton said, requires the same steps involved in good journalism: interrogation, getting good information and making careful decisions. Few reasonable university administrations (or governmental regimes) can argue with such level-headed expression.
The topics debated at tournaments are chosen by the host university. Given the painstaking efforts at creating a two-sided dialogue, any topic is fair game, Middleton said.
Women’s access to contraception will be the topic of debate at Wednesday night’s campus debate. It follows a long tradition of controversial debate topics at the U, which has hosted public debates since 1885.
In the 1910s, the team debated whether white supremacist activities were legitimate. In the ’20s it argued about whether immigrants should be required to pass a literacy test before entering the United States.
Middleton said the debate team doesn’t focus on touchy topics because during the course of the debate, everyone in the audience should hear an argument they agree with.
In considering a potential topic, they ask, “Can we make a meaningful educational contribution to the discussion [rather than an ideological one]?”
If students and citizens everywhere asked that question, administrative crackdowns on incendiary outbursts would hardly be necessary.
Promoting free speech is not about making your voice the loudest, Middleton said, but about creating a constructive dialogue.
In that, he is certainly right.