The Right to a Free Mind

This essay was a runner up in FIRE’s 2011 "Freedom in Academia" Essay Contest.

By Matthew Abel

There exists a widely believed misconception about the role of education. We tend to believe that a teacher or professor’s primary role is to teach us what is true. This is, of course, a very important objective. We should, both in our own lives and in our educational institutions, strive to find out what is true and what is false. However, this is not the primary goal. The most important purpose of education is not to teach us what to learn but how to learn. Our schools and colleges are meant to be places where we can formulate our own opinions and support them with evidence. Free speech is perhaps the most important component of such an institution. Free speech is the medium by which we express our opinions and discuss them. It facilitates the open exchange and debate of ideas between students and faculty. This is not to say that all ideas are equal but that they all deserve a fair chance. Free speech is always under attack by those who fear that their authority is threatened by the free exchange of ideas. When the United States was created, the Founders vowed to protect this right and permanently incorporated it into the Constitution with the first amendment. Cases like those at Valdosta State University and the University of Delaware show that our right to free speech is in need of defense. If we cannot protect this essential right, we may find ourselves being told what to believe, without any way to speak up for ourselves.

Let us first discuss the abuses at Valdosta State University. Even before we examine the issues concerning Hayden Barnes, I would like to further explore the concept of a free speech zone. By their very nature, these zones limit the scope of our first amendment right–a right which Founders like Thomas Jefferson declared to be “inalienable” from human beings. A free speech zone implies that we are only granted this right within the confines of a specific and oftentimes small area. These areas can be very poorly placed, as was the free speech zone at Valdosta State. These zones limit free speech and send the message that everywhere else, our words are grounds for persecution. We also saw that at Valdosta State, activities in the free speech zone had to be approved by a committee, which prompts the question: Is there even free speech in the free speech zones? Limitations like this simply cannot exist in academia, where the exchange of ideas is meant to flow uninhibited, regardless of one’s location on a campus.

The case of Hayden Barnes is a tragedy. It illustrates how those in power can manipulate and distort the rules for their own safety and benefit. Barnes disagreed with President Zaccari, just as two people may disagree about the correct approach to addressing our nation’s debt problem. However, instead of allowing Barnes his right to express himself through the use of a collage published online, Zaccari distorted the meaning of “clear and present danger” to hide his own ideas and agenda from debate. To discourage opposition he utilized an age-old method of control: fear. Zaccari instilled in Barnes and his fellow students fear to speak their minds. This is a fear that they should have the right to avoid. The role of education is to teach students how to question authority if the need arises. At Valdosta State, Zaccari and other administrators have taught students that speaking their minds is a luxury dictated by those in charge.

Free speech is a right that should be guaranteed to everyone, and debate is an essential part of arriving at truth, but there is a point at which debate extends beyond simple argument and becomes coercive. If used incorrectly, words cease to open minds but instead force them into a certain set of values without the consent of the listener. This was the line crossed by the residence life officials at the University of Delaware. The right of the university officials to express their minds began to infringe on the students’ right to free thought. Instead of opening the floor to discussion on certain controversial issues such as racism and sexism, the residence life officials at the university taught conformity to a predetermined set of values and ideals. Attendance at the program was mandatory, and it was clear that a specific agenda was being pushed. As Professor Jan Blits found out, students who spoke out against the program were labeled as “the worst,” while those who seemed to conform to it were labeled as “the best.” This is probably one of the most disturbing examples of thought control in our education system. Instead of allowing students to discover truth on their own, the university tried to tell them what to think and how to think. This method of teaching is incompatible with our values as U.S. citizens. The role of schools is to prompt us to ponder difficult questions, not to answer them for us. The answers to problems like racism are not meant to be streamlined and fed to us. Instead they are meant to be openly debated in educational institutions that facilitate the free exchange of ideas.

The freedom of thought and the freedom of speech historically have always been under attack. Nevertheless, they are freedoms worth fighting for. Academia is meant to be a safe haven from a reality where we are not always given the freedoms we deserve. These examples show us that unfortunately, even our universities can be corrupted. As students and citizens we must strike out against atrocities like those at Valdosta State University and the University of Delaware which teach students that their voices do not count. If we lose the right to speak our minds, then we will be confined to the thoughts and opinions of those in power, and true academia will cease to exist.