By Elliot Engstrom at Townhall
Despite its protection in our Constitution, free speech has never been a given in the United States. From the struggle to pass the First Amendment to Twentieth Century prohibitions on anti-war speech, every American generation has fought some sort of battle to protect this most sacred of rights.
In 2014, Millennials are waging their generation’s fight for free expression on college campuses across the nation. And today, they are winning.
Over the past several decades, “speech codes” have proliferated at an alarming rate across our nation’s college campuses. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education defines such a code as “any university regulation or policy that prohibits expression that would be protected by the First Amendment in society at large.” Under the guise of ostensibly content-neutral rules, college administrators tightly monitor when, where, and how students may express unpopular political views.
Some of these rules restrict political protests to infinitesimally small portions of campus. Others withhold funds from organizations promoting “controversial” causes. Still others prohibit the distribution of “literature” — even our very Constitution — without a litany of permits and permissions. With little to no oversight, college administrators are muffling the voice of an entire generation.
For example, Boise State University mandated that their Young Americans for Liberty chapter pay a “security fee” to host a pro-Second Amendment event. The University of Georgia uses “free speech zones” to restrict unapproved political speech to less than one percent of its campus. The University of Michigan cited a libertarian student group’s “political” nature as a reason to withhold funds from mandatory student activity fees. The University of Hawaii at Hilo branded the Constitution as unauthorized “literature,” and then prohibited its distribution outside of pre-approved areas.
Each of these cases represents a blatant violation of students’ First Amendment rights. But thanks to a broad coalition of students and pro-speech activists, each has either ended in victory for free expression or is under challenge at this very moment. Those partnering with students to bring these challenges range from the leftist American Civil Liberties Union to the conservative Alliance Defending Freedom. This coalition’s political diversity is a testament to just how misguided these attempts to curb student speech truly are. Regardless of political viewpoint, we must foster a free and open marketplace of ideas, at our universities of all places.
I have no doubt that at least some college administrators pass speech codes out of a good faith desire to improve quality of life on college campuses. Such rules can make universities more comfortable, predictable, and even manageable places for professors and students alike. But these justifications fall far short of any reason to deny students their First Amendment rights.
Free speech offends. It questions. It discomforts. These are not reasons to suppress speech on campus. Rather, they demonstrate precisely why we must foster open discourse. If a student can enter and leave a college campus without being challenged by provocative and unpopular ideas, then our universities have failed in their role as engines of progress in society.
While the success of organizations like FIRE and the ACLU in challenging speech codes is reason for optimism, the continual need to rehash these same struggles is cause for alarm. Despite victory after victory in courts across the nation for free speech advocates, college administrators persist in viewing their campuses as fiefdoms, unaffected by victories for freedom at other universities.
For example, FIRE and Young Americans for Liberty at the University of Cincinnati won a major victory in 2012, when a federal court enjoined enforcement of the university’s “free speech zone” policy. And yet here we are today, fighting this exact same battle at the University of Georgia. While winning battles is important, it is time to win the war.
Luckily we may be one step closer to this, as on Sept. 17 of this year — Constitution Day — FIRE mailed letters to over 300 universities warning that they risk litigation if they do not rescind their anti-free speech policies.
Universities cannot be padded environments that expose students only to pre-approved, “acceptable” ideas. A productive and meaningful education includes questioning the status quo both within the classroom and without, something that can only happen when free expression thrives. For this reason, we should relegate campus speech codes to the dustbin of history. There, they may serve as a relic of one more American generation’s victory for freedom of speech.