That We May Think What We Like–Or Not At All?

This essay won second place in FIRE’s 2011 "Freedom in Academia" Essay Contest.

By Rachel Anderson

Former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes is rolling in his grave. Holmes said that “the very aim and end of our institutions is just this: that we may think what we like and say what we think.” As public institutions entrusted with protecting free speech protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, American colleges and universities should encourage individual thought and speech. Yet as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education illustrates in its videos, Valdosta State University and the University of Delaware dishonored this trust as higher education institutions by violating their students’ First Amendment rights. More than denying students’ rights, these universities crushed students’ faith in the American university system, where First Amendment rights are most needed to prepare students to lead after graduation.

Valdosta State University violated the free speech rights of Hayden Barnes. Hayden Barnes is a state paramedic; he saves lives every day. Yet when Barnes was a sophomore at Valdosta State University, he was called a “clear and present danger” to the safety of the campus and was expelled for peacefully protesting the two parking garages being constructed with $30 million in funds from mandatory student fees. Rather than consider Barnes’ alternative solutions for parking changes, the Valdosta State University president tried to silence Barnes’ voice by expelling him for a collage he posted on Facebook. Too bad Barnes didn’t realize that at Valdosta State University, and contrary to the First Amendment, free speech only existed in a far-removed, designated zone for just two hours a day and only for those who obtained a special university permit. How outrageous that Justice Holmes’ “clear and present danger” test, set out in Schenck v. United States and meant to prevent “substantive evils,” was applied to a collage opposing a student-financed parking garage!

Valdosta State University is not alone in strangling students’ First Amendment freedoms. The University of Delaware imposed a mandatory residence hall program that required students to acknowledge that "all whites are racist" and “treated” students for any prejudices against people of a different socioeconomic class, gender, religion, culture or sexuality. The measures used by the University of Delaware verged on thought control, forcing students to declare their innermost thoughts and then vanish those thoughts down an Orwellian “memory hole.” The residence life program grossly invaded students’ privacy, demanding for example that they publicly identify their sexual orientation. Students were forced to pay for re-education camps when they thought they were paying for residence halls.

By preventing free speech, Valdosta State University and the University of Delaware slowed students’ intellectual development and social maturation by feeding them with answers and prohibiting meaningful discussion. Socratic dialogue is an integral part of much higher education because it teaches students to think for themselves, following Holmes’ ideals. The value of free speech is being able to pose questions, which teaches students to develop arguments and to arrive at their own conclusions according to their reasoning and beliefs. The University of Delaware gave its students a conclusion: America is an oppressive society plagued by racism. Instead of posing a question (asking whether America is an oppressive society, and exploring the pros and cons), the residence life program mandated the conclusion and then punished any exploration of the topic. Eliminating intelligent discussion curbs curiosity and encourages mindless robots under a totalitarian regime. Want a society like the brainwashed castes of Brave New World? Then follow the University of Delaware’s example. A democratic state requires new ideas strengthened by questioning to keep one entity from becoming too powerful; progress requires discussion. Universities are supposed to nurture the mind by expanding the breadth of students’ understanding and exposing them to new perspectives, not limit thinking by indoctrinating students with university-approved ideas and feeding them conclusions.

Until students enter college, there are few platforms where youths are not fed with conclusions. Free speech at colleges and universities is significant because it is the first opportunity for many students to express opinions without fear of judgment or repercussions. Federal courts have traditionally protected the rights of public high schools and elementary schools to limit the free speech rights of their students on the basis of in loco parentis, “in place of a parent.” Grade schools and high schools have “different pedagogical goals” compared to universities, according to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals decision in McCauley v. University of the Virgin Islands. Whereas high schools and elementary schools "prioritize the inculcation of societal values,” “[p]ublic universities encourage teachers and students to launch new inquiries into our understanding of the world.” But new inquiries require free speech protections, and despite the McCauley ruling, public universities like Valdosta State University refuse to honor the rights of college students as legal adults. Much like a parent limiting his or her child’s television-viewing time and content, Valdosta State limited its students’ free speech to two hours a day in the minuscule Free Speech Zone.

Free speech is not a television program that airs on a schedule. Free speech is not a light switch that colleges and universities can switch on and off at will. Though Valdosta State University and the University of Delaware tried to force their students to live in darkness, FIRE was the torch that brought students back to living in the light. Holmes recognized the power of new ideas when he said that “a new and valid idea is worth more than a regiment,” but if universities continue trying to control the thoughts of their students and silencing voices offering peaceful solutions, “the very aim and end of our institutions” will be “that we may think what our institutions like and say what our institutions think.”