by Rachel Helmstetter
As Americans, we enjoy many freedoms that we hold dear to our hearts. One of the most significant rights we are guaranteed in the Constitution is our freedom of speech. However, there is an increasingly common trend in today’s colleges and universities, such as at Valdosta State University and the University of Delaware, to place restrictions on free speech and freedom of conscience on campus. These suppressions of our most fundamental rights as free men and women are completely incompatible with the idea of universities being a place where differences of opinion are encouraged. This is where our nation’s future leaders should be educated as members of a free society, and learn to debate and resolve differences peacefully. Freedom of speech and expression is vital to our nation’s colleges in that it promotes free thinking and helps develop students’ fundamental beliefs that they will take with them into the real world.
One example of this blatant violation of the First Amendment is the case of Hayden Barnes and Valdosta State University. The University prevented Mr. Barnes from protesting against a new parking garage the university was building, a garage he was morally opposed to for many reasons. Per the Constitution, Mr. Barnes has the right to protest against the construction of this structure and alert his peers to his opposition in any way he wishes as long as he does not pose a threat to himself or others. However, Valdosta interpreted his letters to the school newspaper, letters to the president, and a collage posted to his Facebook page as a direct target and threat to the president of the university and the university itself. This resulted in his expulsion from school with no disciplinary hearing or even so much as a phone call. This type of outcome is what causes students today to actually fear speaking out and proclaiming their true beliefs at today’s universities. Not only must they deal with some colleges’ “free speech zones” (which in Valdosta’s case was a very small percentage of the campus) and the appropriate time allotment, but also have worries about being expelled for saying something that offends someone or someone’s beliefs. In reality free speech in it’s true form almost always offends someone, but that is the beauty of our rights. We can believe what we believe no matter whom it offends. If we were forced to believe only things that everyone agreed upon and no one took offense to, it would not be long before individuality and individual rights disappeared.
Another example of collegiate violation of the First Amendment is the freshman orientation program that the University of Delaware was enforcing. The freshmen were not only being told what to say and think, but what to actually believe. They forced students to be defined by their race, sexual orientation, and many other traits one can be identified by. Yet broadcasting such things about oneself is a personal choice and this university was coercing students to do just that. This type of forced conformity not only violates the First Amendment, but also is detrimental to the ideal that all places of higher learning should be a “marketplace of ideas” where students can learn to debate and resolve differences peacefully. Universities are becoming more and more restrictive on free speech so much to the point that they are indoctrinating students with what the institution feels students should or must believe. The job of a university is to provide a place and environment beneficial to learning and discovering your own beliefs on your own time, not to tell you what is and what is not acceptable to believe.
Freedom of speech and other rights protected by the First Amendment are some of the core foundations for being free men and women. With universities infringing upon these rights, students are being taught that America is no longer as free as they once believed. It is organizations like Foundations for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) that can help the students who stand up for their rights and pull the balance of power back from the universities to the side of the students. By doing this, they show that the First Amendment still stands and that no one, not even towering universities, has the right to restrict the freedom of speech, religion, or conscience of American citizens.