Wanted: Free Speech on American Campuses

by Jackson Wilson

Freedom! It’s what America is all about. Yet some university officials apparently disagree. They’ve decided to limit freedom of speech on their campuses. Maybe they are confused as to whom, exactly, the First Amendment applies or what exact freedom is protected. Perhaps it’s a matter of convenience. Maybe they’ve concluded that the First Amendment is a good idea in theory but, in practice, is disruptive on a college campus. So they’ve decided to rein it in, to put some limits on the idea of free speech. Or maybe these officials have simply redefined the goals of the university. Perhaps the new goal is to coerce political correctness rather than to stimulate thinking and enhance the learning atmosphere.

When a person is targeted for merely reading a book, no matter what the content, especially on a university campus, it is a disgrace.  People read books for all sorts of reasons.  To make judgments about a person based solely on the cover of a book is unenlightened, small minded and wrong in the first place. For university officials to support this kind of complaint is inexcusable. If anyone deserved a reprimand in the case of Keith John Sampson, it should have been the person who made accusations without getting the facts first and assumed the right to dictate what another person could read.

Particularly appalling were the actions of the University of Delaware in gathering students as a captive audience for indoctrination. The invasion of those students’ privacy in exposing personal feelings, attitudes and beliefs is indefensible. The same law that grants the right to expression also protects the right to privacy. The university violated its purpose by its attempts to coerce conformity to someone’s social and political agenda, which had nothing to do with the academic goals of those students. Attempting to force social conformity is ridiculous anyway. Just because someone is coerced to make politically correct statements doesn’t mean a change of thought or opinion has occurred, only that someone has learned to keep his or her true feelings hidden.

The sad thing is that these universities are not alone. With 70% of American colleges holding speech codes in violation of the First Amendment, too many young people are being betrayed by the very institutions which should be nurturing their growth, learning, and development. Their rights are being violated by the very institutions which should be protecting and encouraging them. Whether because of confusion, convenience, or change of goals, school administrators aren’t given the option to redefine the First Amendment.  These codes are illegal.  As if this weren’t enough, there are several additional reasons why a university campus, of all places, should be the last place where such codes would exist.

First, these speech codes are incompatible with the very concept of higher education. The primary obligation of an institute of higher learning is to teach people how to learn, to encourage people to think independently, to promote creative problem solving, reasoning, critical thinking and the articulate expression of thoughts and ideas. These universities apparently forgot about these goals, and they let down their students in the process. The First Amendment grants freedom of expression to each American citizen. How much more so should this freedom abound on university campuses where young men and women, the future leaders of this great country, are learning, developing and maturing?

Freedom can be abused. The statement, “My rights end where yours begin” sounds fair. The heart of the issue is the point at which that conflict of rights occurs. Some people would say a line was crossed because one was offended or because there were hurt feelings. This is ridiculous. If one doesn’t like a book, a work of art or a speech, one has a right. Don’t read it; don’t look at it; don’t listen to it. But one has no more right to forbid another’s expression than another does to force agreement.

It is true that free expression sometimes causes discomfort on a university campus. One might feel uncomfortable when someone voices an opinion with which he or she disagrees.  Diversity is challenging, but our right to be diverse is what makes us the nation we are. People need to be challenged. Through challenge, one either strengthens a position and further cements a belief or finds reasons to expand, compromise, or adopt a better one. Either way, he or she emerges stronger, wiser, and more confident. Asking questions and searching for answers lie at the heart of the learning process. Through exchange of ideas, people arrive at creative compromise and progressive solutions.

Second, stifled expression poses far more dangerous risks than hurt feelings. One of these is the danger of prejudice. John Stuart Mill said, “If you are not taught to debate and defend your beliefs you end up holding them like prejudices.”  In the end, it is far better to allow a few hurt feelings than to allow prejudice to seethe below the surface. Fear and prejudice lay behind the most heinous event in human history. There were small-minded rulers who feared what they didn’t know and couldn’t understand. Too cowardly to face what they feared, they decided to persecute and eliminate their perceived threat. What ensued was one of the ugliest blights on the pages of human history. Attempting to arbitrarily silence the opposition doesn’t make people strong; it makes them bullies. It is the work of cowards who are afraid of what they don’t understand. We are only truly courageous to the degree that we are willing to face our fears, to meet our perceived foes, and to confront those things which threaten us.

Third, stifled expression produces passivity among people who are forced to comply rather than encouraged to search out and stand up for what they believe. In countries where free speech is denied, where critical thinking is discouraged, expression banned, and questions not allowed, people become followers. They hold the views they are told to hold. Weakness, dependency and fear abound in an environment of conformity. A strong nation cannot be built by followers. It comes through strong, independent, and courageous men and women who are able to think critically and creatively, who stand for what they believe and who have the courage to go against the grain when necessary.  Freedom of expression is at the heart of why America is the great country that it is. Of all places, this freedom must be protected, nurtured and valued on the campuses of universities and colleges throughout this nation. It must be encouraged in the young men and women who will tomorrow be the leaders of this great nation. The leaders of tomorrow must be free to think for themselves today.