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Helping students understand free speech before it is too late

When I told my peers about my plans to intern at FIRE, which I described to them as a foundation that defends and promotes the free speech rights of students, my one friend replied in a disapproving tone, “So you’re protecting rich white kids who say the n-word online?” This may seem like nothing more than an ignorant response, but it is actually quite revealing of an attitude towards free speech held by many college students. This attitude is not one of opposition to free speech, but rather one that stems from a lack of understanding of the First Amendment. I believe that if we help these students better understand free speech and what it looks like in practice, we can have a lot more boots on the ground fighting for students’ rights.

Growing up, I naively believed that virtually every American supports a general idea of free speech, and that the First Amendment only existed to protect speech that is so outlandish, such as the example mentioned by my friend, that no rational person would say it. It wasn’t until I personally experienced censorship that I realized the true modern importance of the First Amendment. 

In high school, my fellow classmates and I came up with the idea of a Civil Discourse Club that would allow students of different political backgrounds to freely discuss various topics with one another. I realized that there existed significant opposition to the values of free speech when we proposed the idea to my school’s administration and multiple teachers and administrators took issue with the fact that our club would allow students of all viewpoints to participate, citing fears that such a space could potentially expose their students to offensive speech. My time in high school spent fighting the censorship of my club sparked my passion for promoting free speech and intellectual diversity, and thanks to a teacher who helped me overcome every obstacle put into place by the administration, I was introduced to FIRE.

I can understand why my peer reacted the way he did when I told him that I was interning at FIRE. I, too, was once unaware of the ongoing threats to our First Amendment rights until I was the one being censored. Yes, there are people who are well-educated in the First Amendment and still oppose the basic principles that FIRE fights for. For example, my high school administrators were very adamant in their declaration that they did not believe offensive speech should be tolerated in academia. However, there is a large population of untapped allies that we can convince to join our fight against censorship. This population of students is not intentionally anti-free speech; they just do not understand the role of the First Amendment in practice.

To see the impact of these students’ misconceptions regarding free speech, look no further than the 2020 First Amendment on Campus report from the Knight Foundation and Gallup. When college students were surveyed, “[c]lose to 7 in 10 college students (68%) regard citizens’ free speech rights as being ‘extremely important’ to democracy,” and “[e]ighty-one percent of students widely support a campus environment where students are exposed to all types of speech, even if they may find it offensive.” However, the same students expressed support for anti-free speech policies — 71% of them believing that “colleges should be able to restrict [...] costumes that stereotype certain racial or ethnic groups.” This could perhaps be partially explained by a lack of knowledge regarding free speech, as only 30% of the students surveyed knew that hate speech was protected under the First Amendment. 

The responses to the surveys reveal that many college students have, as FIRE Senior Research Fellow Sean Stevens describes, “contradictory views on free expression and the campus expression climate.” Many of these students believe in a general idea of free speech although their contradictory support of anti-free speech policies reveals that their ability to connect free speech with the issues of censorship on their campus is rather limited. I believe that this is a result of poor education on free speech, and social pressure to support certain campus policies. 

Since high school, I have become an avid supporter of free speech only because I had personally experienced censorship and understood that the only way to protect my ability to speak is to protect the right of everyone to speak. My beliefs however, were not necessarily based in a nuanced understanding of free speech and the philosophy behind it.

We cannot wait around and hope that everyone will eventually face censorship that triggers some sort of “free speech awakening” that I experienced in high school. To expedite the process of enriching peoples’ appreciation for free speech, it is imperative that we teach the First Amendment in a more modern context. We need to teach the philosophy behind the First Amendment, what our rights entail, and connect various incidents on college campuses to the suppression of free speech. Furthermore, we must fight against the branding of free speech as a conservative issue, and emphasize its importance to all Americans. Resources such as FIRE’s high school curriculum provide teachers with the resources they need to properly explain the First Amendment to students of different age groups. FIRE’s college orientation modules allow colleges to teach their incoming students not only about the school’s free speech policies but also about the importance of having such policies.

Many of these misguided students want to do the right thing by promoting tolerance and acceptance of marginalized students, but censorship cannot replace the cultural change needed for this. If we can teach these students why free speech is vital to their educational experience, then we can gain their support before they themselves fall victim to censorship.

Micky Wootten is a rising junior at Davidson College and FIRE Summer Intern.

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