College students must be allowed to express their own opinions in class

February 2, 2005

Columbia University, formerly famous for its academics, will now be infamous for its "free speech" crisis. A recent documentary, "Columbia Unbecoming," has cried foul on the university’s Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures department. The film alleges that the department’s faculty is systematically silencing pro-Israeli students, thus limiting or outright expunging their academic freedom to dissent.

According to the Columbia Spectator, two civil rights groups, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) have joined the debate. The NYCLU has zealously protected the faculty’s actions, while FIRE has supported the students’ right to dissent in the classroom. According to Fox News, FIRE has claimed that NYCLU is blatantly biased in favor of the faculty, especially in the statement, "students have the right to express their own views, (but) it is not, except at the invitation of the professor, an open forum for students to express any views they wish at any time."

NYCLU has obviously lost sight of the real victim in this case: free discourse in the classroom. Many students here at Texas A&M may not understand the need for free speech in class. In an engineering or veterinary course, free speech may be of little use; however, in courses that focus not on technical knowledge but subjective thinking, the students must be allowed to voice their own opinions. Free discourse is essential to a free exchange of ideas. After all, isn’t the call for more diversity in the classroom about ensuring multiple points of view for the free exchange of ideas?

FIRE president David French explained that neither students nor professors "can expect their views will be unchallenged. It’s a give and take." The classroom isn’t a place for students to blurt out whatever they please, but it needs to be someplace where an honest discussion can occur. What would be the value of most of the courses in A&M’s College of Liberal Arts if students were not only allowed, but also encouraged to develop their own opinions on a subject? Students shouldn’t be forced to take information as it comes: It is essential that they are allowed to debate the meaning of events or ideas so that this great nation isn’t reduced to a single point of view, a point succinctly stated in the motto "E Pluribus Unum," or "Out of many, one."

College education, especially a liberal arts education, is founded upon the free exchange of ideas; without it the countless papers written in those courses would be nothing but the regurgitated words of professors. The freedom of speech on college campuses shouldn’t be confined to the classroom. Universities, whether public or private, should be public forums that allow for the free exchange of ideas from one side of the campus to the other.

Students at Columbia unfortunately, like those at most private universities, can claim no protection under the First Amendment, as the First Amendment only applies to schools receiving federal or state funding. State universities, however, are both state and federally subsidized and accordingly should be havens for free speech.

Aggies should be able to enjoy their First Amendment rights almost without limitation. Unfortunately, a few exceptions to the First Amendment have been carved into the student rules. Many Aggies may be familiar with the "Designated Free Speech Zones," which are outlined in appendix XI of the Student Rules. Section II of appendix XI designates the Rudder Fountain Area, the area around Sul Ross and the West Campus mall (in between the Heep Center and the flagpoles) as "free-speech areas."

As if the limitation of free speech to these areas weren’t enough, the University has further insulted students by arbitrarily deciding that any gathering at which more than 25 people are expected must first obtain permission before using these spaces. These and other provisions are violations of the First Amendment. Of course there should be reasonable limits as to when, where and how a demonstration takes place, but restricting it to these areas under the guidelines the University has put in place robs students from fully exercising their Constitutional right to free speech.

The First Amendment is an absolutely indispensable part of the college educational experience. Free speech in the classroom and campus-wide ensures the transmission of ideas throughout the student body, as free discussion of ideas allows students to see an issue from multiple points of view.

Schools: Columbia University Texas A&M University – College Station