Free Speech Losing Ground

November 7, 2015

By Staff at The Columbus Dispatch

It’s bad news that free speech is being curtailed on campuses across the country today. The worse news, though, is that many students don’t seem to realize it or care.

A poll released by Yale University’s William F. Buckley Jr. Program, conducted by polling firm McLaughlin & Associates, found that more than half (51 percent) of students “are in favor of their college or university having speech codes to regulate speech for students and faculty.”

That means a student or teacher accused of saying something bigoted or “wrong” can be charged with a violation of university policy. That is chilling, counter to the Constitution and the opposite of one of the main things higher education is supposed to offer: a free and diverse exchange of ideas.

About the same amount, 52 percent, of students also would bar outside speakers who have a history of engaging in what they consider hate speech. The Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonpartisan group that promotes free speech on campus, keeps a list of several hundred such cases, including a number of examples at Ohio colleges. The full list is available on FIRE’s website at

A full 72 percent of respondents said they support disciplinary action against “any student or faculty member on campus who uses language that is considered racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise offensive.” The problem with that, besides restricting speech, is that offensive is in the eye of the beholder. As FIRE wrote of such a code at Florida State University, a document banning “hate speech” can be “so broad that you could drive a truck through it.”

The First Amendment makes no exceptions disallowing speech that makes people feel “unsafe,” though 35 percent of poll respondents said they believed that hate speech is exempted. Speech codes in the guise of harassment policies have become common in recent years. This, according to FIRE, is largely because of pressure from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

All this is ironic at a time when many schools spend millions on “diversity” offices and given the fact that many of today’s professors went to college at a time of student protests over free expression. Today, the type of opinions being quashed at colleges seem to have simply traded places: whereas what were considered liberal ideas might have been squelched decades ago, students today say by nearly a 2-to-1 margin that their school is generally more tolerant of liberal ideas and beliefs than conservative ones. Students who identified themselves as liberal were three times as likely as conservatives to say that the First Amendment is outdated (30 percent vs. 10 percent).

One problem seems to be simple ignorance: Nearly a third of students polled couldn’t correctly identify which amendment guarantees free speech. This calls for more education about civics and America’s founding documents in schools.

But it’s disheartening that while a strong majority (73 percent) of students say the First Amendment is important and should be respected, they either don’t understand or don’t care that it’s not being followed on their campus.

Whether because of their own biases or their resignation to groupthink, they seem to not even recognize what is lost.


Schools: Florida State University Yale University Cases: Yale University: Protesters at Yale Threaten Free Speech, Demand Apologies and Resignations from Faculty Members Over Halloween Email