New trend: Freshman reading, free speech, and activism

June 14, 2019

While most college students have just finished up their finals and are deciding whether to sell back their used textbooks, the next class of incoming freshmen is just receiving its first assignment: freshman common reading.

As this year’s batch of required readings are being assigned, an exciting trend is emerging. Many of this years’ books focus on free speech and stories of students learning to exercise their First Amendment rights.

Freshmen at Washington University in St. Louis will get to read “HATE: Why We Should Resist It With Free Speech, Not Censorship” by former ACLU president and FIRE Summer Conference keynote speaker Nadine Strossen. Her book breaks down the “hate speech vs. free speech” debate, focusing in particular on why hate speech, on its own, is protected under the First Amendment. Additionally, Strossen examines how hate speech laws in other countries have backfired and have provided officials broad discretion to censor minority views and speakers.

Other universities have assigned books about student activism. Arcadia University has assigned “Glimmer of Hope” by survivors of the Parkland school shooting, and Texas Christian University would like their freshmen to read “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas (which also appears on the American Library Association’s Top 11 Most Challenged Books of 2018).

Last year, Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber was ahead of the curve, choosing “Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech” by politics professor Keith Whittington as the freshman “pre-read” assignment. Princeton also distributed the book to all undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty.

Penguin Random House’s 2019 list of suggested common reading includes two FIRE favorites regarding free speech: “Uncensored” by Zachary Wood and “The Coddling of the American Mind” by Jonathan Haidt and FIRE’s own Greg Lukianoff.

FIRE hopes that this new trend helps incoming freshmen find their own voices on campus and sparks their interest in exercising their First Amendment rights.