Free Speech and Higher Education

December 13, 2015

By Brad Ross at

Abraham Lincoln said, “Nearly all men can stand the test of adversity, but if you really want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

These words can apply to a variety of situations, but I would like to examine them in light of the recent events at Oklahoma Wesleyan University where Dr. Everett Piper, president of the university, proved himself a man of strong moral character by using his power as president of the university to defend free speech.

It seems a student was offended by a sermon given on campus and wanted an apology as well as an end to any further such public language. Dr. Piper very valiantly refused to give in to student demands for what basically amounted to censorship. He is to be applauded, especially considering how many college and university leaders are cringing and submitting to student demands that free speech be restricted because it somehow hurts someone’s feelings.

On the same note, a recent article by Thomas Sowell, “A Resurgence of intolerance on campuses” (Dothan Eagle, Dec. 7, 2015) points out that this censorship atmosphere is alive and well in the leadership circles of many colleges and universities where faculty members are disciplined for making public comments which are not in line with the politically correct guidelines of such colleges and universities.

In his article, Sowell mentions the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an organization dedicated to protecting individual rights of expression, whether those individuals are students or faculty. An examination of its website reveals that the leadership of many colleges and universities regularly discipline faculty members for publicly disagreeing with college or university policies even though those faculty members faithfully abide by those policies.

It seems we have reached a time where Lincoln’s words ring true: character is being tested by the possession of power. Some, such as Dr. Everett Piper, use that power to protect free speech while others apparently use it to suppress free speech. Colleges and universities are supposed to be places where free, open discussion of ideas can occur in order to foster higher-order thinking skills, critical thinking in particular. Limiting the ideas which are included in the public discussion works against that.