Freedom of Speech on College Campuses

This essay was a runner up in FIRE’s 2011 "Freedom in Academia" Essay Contest.

By Michael Munther

The suppression of freedom of speech is not only unconstitutional and consequently unlawful but also represents a contradiction of the belief that America is “the land of the free.” When our civil liberties are violated with impunity, we, as Americans, can no longer contend that this is a country that values such liberties. This is particularly important in the case of young people attending colleges or universities. These are the fledgling men and women who will, one day, be working in, voting in, living in, and governing our nation. Their brief time in higher education must be a period in which they are allowed to experiment with new ideas, to shake off or to reaffirm the values with which they have been raised and to explore new avenues of thought. They are in flux and consequently quite vulnerable. They may make mistakes; they may, for a while, adopt concepts that they will ultimately reject. On the other hand, they may find ideas that will govern the rest of their lives. One way or another, they must be able to think freely and to express themselves openly. Any abridgement of these rights constitutes a direct threat to the very nature of education, which is to “educt” or draw out ideas from the minds of the students involved. Students must be allowed to talk about the new world they have just entered and to talk about it freely. They must be able to voice their opinions without fear of retaliation. The purpose of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is to protect these vital and somewhat delicate liberties.

The situation at Valdosta State University involved a clear violation of a student’s right to freedom of speech. In this case, a student criticized the erection of two parking garages that he thought would damage the environment and add to the already prominent health problems of the country. He protested peacefully. He did not chain himself to a fence or attempt to stop traffic or injure public property in any way. What he actually did was to create a work of art protesting against the garages and disseminate it on the Internet. The college president took this as a personal affront and, in an act that was virtually totalitarian in nature, expelled the student. What, in my opinion, the president was counting on was the student’s personal inability to hire lawyers and sue for his civil liberties. This was, of course, a situation in which FIRE became important, because they pressured the university’s board of regents, a group entrusted with the maintenance of the institution, to rescind the expulsion. The real issue, however, goes much deeper than either the expulsion or parking garages. It speaks to the intellectual climate of the campus—a campus in which freedom of speech was already severely limited. The garages got built, and the student was free to return. The problem is that other students, aware of what might happen if they broke the rules, aware of the possibility of a disruption to their academic careers, became, as a result of this situation, less likely to speak out about important issues of the day. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, freedom of speech “is a delicate flower. Touch it and the bloom is gone.” In view of this incident, how likely is a student at Valdosta State University to speak his or her mind about controversial topics?

An even more insidious case occurred at the University of Delaware, where students in a required freshman orientation course were forced to confess to a set of negative beliefs about the society in which they lived and were, in effect, subjected to brainwashing techniques to promote what would generally be seen as a liberal agenda. There is nothing wrong with the agenda per se. But enforcing value change by predetermining what students should think or say makes it unlikely that the value change will occur and is demeaning to the students, who have come to college to openly formulate new ways of thinking. The program, in effect, singled out minorities and gave students the impression that they had no voice in their own beliefs and no input into the values they would carry through life. The game techniques used were, in actuality, designed to control the minds of the participants. The result was that students became more aware of sexism and racism and class differences, because the program emphasized the differences among human beings more than the similarities. Students who would never have been concerned with whether someone was homosexual were suddenly and rudely forced to point the finger at classmates. Exploring one’s own racism or sexism or ageism or homophobia is a painful process, and to be forced to go through this process in public is humiliating. The result is not likely to be substantial change but rather rote memorization and spouting out of what the “teacher” requires.

What is needed on academic campuses is the freedom to explore what is, for many students, unexplored intellectual territory, to test out new ideas and to express those ideas in an open public forum. Without this the very purpose of the university is greatly diminished.