Freedom of Speech: The Basis for Higher Education

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

By Katherine Gerton

Depending on whom you ask, the purpose of higher education is either to prepare students to enter the work force or to develop students who are versed in all areas of academic study. While there may be division over the academic purpose of higher education, there is almost none over its social purposes. Its purpose is not to compel students to adopt the thoughts and values of the university president; the principal purpose of any higher education institution is to teach students to think and to think critically about every opinion presented to them. Thinking, however, is useless if the students are not encouraged, or even allowed, to share their opinions.

The First Amendment to the Constitution protects the rights of every individual to their thoughts and the free expression of them. Of the five freedoms therein, the freedom of speech is the most remembered. This freedom has become an integral part of our nation, allowing for everything from our political system to the 1,000 different cable channels. The freedom of speech is particularly important on our college campuses and to our college students. The ability to express opinions is the source of the political, social, and economic activism that has become associated with college life. The protests of the 1960s and ’70s against the Vietnam War, against segregation, and against many classical values were carried out on college campuses like Kent State and Jackson State College and began the trend of student activism. Without the freedom of speech, college could be accomplished much more efficiently by simply taking courses online, but it is that freedom that makes the college experience worthwhile.

In recent years, some colleges and universities have begun telling students what they can say and what they must think. If a student were to make a collage that protested the building of a parking garage, he would be well within his First Amendment rights. At Valdosta State, when a student did this, he was expelled because the university president didn’t like the message. The president was behaving legally when he called the student into his office to discuss his position on the issue, but as soon as the student was intimidated and expelled because of his views, the president’s actions were no longer legal. This clear violation of First Amendment rights teaches students that it is not safe to speak up on issues important to them, that it is better to stay quiet to avoid chastisement.

Even more atrocious than restricting the freedom of speech is restricting the freedom of thought. Students at the University of Delaware were forced to attend classes whose objective was to unify their opinions on certain socioeconomic issues to what the university deemed appropriate. These students were then forced to take an exam to see how well they had conformed. Under thought restrictions, the students become faceless bodies like the students in Pink Floyd’s The Wall, a grotesque parody of what it is to be a student. This kind of violation is more dangerous than just restricting freedom of speech. If your freedom of speech is restricted, you can still hold your opinions and just be more careful about when and how you share them. When the rights to your thoughts are usurped, however, the freedom of speech becomes irrelevant.

In a totalitarian society these actions by a university would be accepted and encouraged, but in America, a country founded on differences of opinion, these actions are unacceptable. Under the system of IngSoc in George Orwell’s 1984, a “thoughtcrime,” any thought or idea that went against the party, was punishable with torture and being erased from history. While 1984 may seem like an extreme fictional example, that kind of thought restriction is happening in many countries today. Iran is a totalitarian nation without a constitution like ours to defend; instead people often pledge their allegiance to their ruler and conform to his ideals indiscriminately. In North Korea the “cult of personality” surrounding Kim Jong-il makes it a crime to speak against him, his person, or his policies while children starve in the streets.

Thinking critically requires the opportunity to question mainstream views. If differences of opinion were not allowed, we would still believe that the sun revolves around the earth and that maggots spontaneously generate on rotting meat. A main purpose of high school is to prepare students for higher education, and the main purpose of higher education is to prepare students for life. In high school you learn the basic facts, and in college you apply those facts to solve new problems; in high school you learn basic rhetorical techniques so that, at a university, you can clearly express your opinions; in high school you learn what and how, but in college you ask why. If you cannot freely express your opinion, you cannot ask why an opinion is believed, follow that opinion to its conclusion, and then apply that conclusion toward solving today’s problems. Without the freedom of speech, a valid higher education cannot exist; without the freedom of speech, students are stuck in high school forever.

The results of limiting free speech extend far beyond the college scene. The largest of these results would be political and economic stagnation. Students who graduate from speech- and thought-restricted universities would graduate with no opinions except the opinions they had been taught. When they become our political leaders and business managers, they would bring nothing new to the table. They would have no fresh outlook on problems and no new product ideas; all they would have would be the ability to continue what is already old, and that is a relatively worthless ability.

Diversity of thought is one of the most important things a college campus can have. It fosters personal and interpersonal development of the university’s students and teaches students that differences are not just nice but extremely important. The restriction of students’ freedoms of speech and thought are incompatible with higher education and cannot be allowed to persist whether openly or in secret without undermining everything our society stands for. If these violations continue and become more prevalent, the educational and social realms of American society will become replicas of the “exaggerated fictional representations” of thought-controlled societies and the social scenes of Iran and North Korea.