Alabama’s Colleges, Universities Must Defend Free Speech

November 18, 2015

By J. Pepper Bryars at Alabama Media Group

The uneducated comments coming from higher education these days are startling.

Over at the University of Missouri, a student body representative recently said she’s “tired of hearing that First Amendment rights protect students” who engage in speech she deems hostile.

Up at Amherst College in Massachusetts, students are demanding the school issue a statement saying it does “not tolerate the actions of students who posted … the ‘Free Speech’ posters.”

And here in the South, students at Vanderbilt University are protesting a professor who once wrote that Islam was “dangerous” and that Christians should strengthen themselves “spiritually and intellectually” for continuing challenges to traditional marriage.

Good grief. So much for college being a liberated time and place for the open discussion of ideas. It’s become the opposite. But lest we roll our eyes and shrug the issue off as harmless antics from silly, spoiled college students, we should think hard about what is actually at stake.

To adjust the phrase, a threat to free speech anywhere in America is a threat to free speech everywhere in America. It doesn’t require much imagination to see how our freedoms could vanish after decades of steady erosion or even in a flash flood of political correctness.

The constitution cannot defend itself. Our rights depend on young Americans who’ve not only learned about things like the First Amendment, but who’ve also become convinced of their necessity, stalwart in their defense, and motivated to pass them along, intact. Sadly, our institutions of higher learning, which play a critical role in that effort, are failing miserably.

In case the First Amendment has become too subversive to be available on campus, here’s it’s actual language: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

There’s a great deal to unpack in those 45 words, but one doesn’t need to be a constitutional scholar to get the gist: we’re living in a free country, and if you don’t like what you’re reading, watching, or listening to, then look away, turn away, or walk away. We don’t honor the “heckler’s veto” in America, and nobody gets to turn down the volume on our free speech dial to the lowest common denominator.

We didn’t arrive at this state of quasi-Marxist groupthink overnight. Some of the institutions we depend upon to educate our children are either capitulating to, or collaborating with, radical movements who have illiberal notions of speech that simply aren’t compatible with the American way of life.

Among the worst is the notion that only “correct” speech and “sanctioned” groups are protected – all others must be quarantined. In fact, one in six public colleges in the U.S. already use “free speech zones” to restrict student speech, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

At the University of South Alabama in Mobile, for instance, a prolife student club founded by Katherine Sweet was told in 2013 that they had to setup their display on an arguably low-traffic portion of the campus that’s designated for free speech.

“I went to South thinking it would be a place where I could debate freely with other students, engage in discourse, and ultimately learn from not only our professors, but each other,” wrote Sweet after she filed a lawsuit against the school. “Aren’t universities supposed to be atmospheres that promote just that?”

One would think so, but liberty seems passé on campus these days. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education graded 14 public colleges and universities in Alabama on their respect for free speech; nine received “red” warning lights while the rest only had “yellow.”

Before this virus of intolerance and ignorance spreads further into Alabama, our public colleges and universities should immediately abolish all so-called “free speech zones” and plainly reaffirm that the First Amendment is alive and well on campus.

Otherwise, our governor and state legislature should teach them a lesson by clearly banning all such intrusions upon the First Amendment. Our state’s students, and our nation, deserve no less.

Schools: Amherst College University of South Alabama University of Missouri – Columbia Cases: University of Missouri: Policing of “Hurtful” Speech