Today we have asked President Obama to help fight speech codes on college campuses, which not only violate the rights of millions of college students but also teach them that censorship is more efficacious and desirable than tolerance of each person’s views, no matter how profoundly antithetical to one’s own.
In this vein, one line from President Obama’s inaugural address is of particular note:
To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history[.]
Of course, the President was not referring to administrators of U.S. colleges and universities; he was referring to dictatorial governments. And obviously no U.S. university inflicts anything close to the types of depravity that millions suffer every day in nations with repressive political systems, and none ever will.
Yet even if lives are not physically at risk, it is still worth noting that Americans are not exempt from the desire to use power to silence opponents and damage careers. Just ask Kara Spencer, a student government leader at Michigan State University (MSU) who was labeled and punished as a "spammer" for e-mailing professors about her dissent from proposed policy changes at the university. Or ask Hayden Barnes, who was expelled from Valdosta State University (VSU) after he peacefully protested the construction of new parking garages on campus.
History demonstrates that the desire for power—and for the silencing of those who would challenge its use—is all too human. But a central characteristic of a free society is that this desire to silence is ultimately defeated. In this sense, VSU’s former president, Ronald Zaccari, was on "the wrong side of history" when he expelled Barnes for his criticism. By way of proof, consider the fact that not only was Zaccari’s unconstitutional punishment of Hayden Barnes reversed by the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, but VSU’s repressive "free speech zone" (see video) was also dismantled shortly after he left office.
MSU’s anti-spam policy, which labels anyone a spammer who sends more than about 20–30 people unsolicited e-mail on any topic without prior review and permission, is also on the wrong side of history. Let’s hope that it is soon to be found only in history’s dustbin.