What Can I Say?: Free Speech on College Campuses

This essay won second place in FIRE's 2012 Essay Contest.

By Nora Faris

You are a high school junior on your first college visit, eagerly sampling the campus culture—the dorms, the dining halls, the academic departments. You notice that the campus seems exceptionally quiet—well-manicured grounds, imposing buildings, and dedicated students walking purposefully between classes. However, after wandering the campus for the afternoon, you come upon a bustling congregation of students in an amphitheater, where the atmosphere of a political rally prevails. Slogans are shouted. Flags, t-shirts, and protest paraphernalia are waved and worn. One student, outfitted with a megaphone, calls out to passersby, rallying them to action for the latest cause—anything from birth control to the lack of edible food on campus. Another student solicits signatures for an upcoming ballot initiative. Amidst the throng, an eclectic undergrad evangelist known as “Brother Jed” leads his flock of shaggy collegiate disciples in worship—his volatile preaching mingling with the chants of protestors. The entire scene is a living embodiment of the First Amendment—a cacophony of educated voices freely engaging in open and public discussion, a discussion which you can’t wait to join. Now this is what higher education is all about, right?

However, a mere ten paces away from this raucous celebration of the First Amendment, freedom of speech is under siege. The scene you witnessed was unfolding in a “free speech zone”—a tiny island on campus where freedom of expression is not curbed by disciplinary action. Outside this oasis of liberty, students are subject to speech codes—university-imposed restrictions on freedom of speech. If the protestors left the designated space, their picketing, no matter how peaceful, could lead to punitive action by the university. If the signature-soliciting student attempted to collect names for the petition outside the zone, he could face potential arrest—as was the case for members of a student group at the University of Cincinnati. And what of Brother Jed? He and his congregation could be incarcerated under the guise of disorderly conduct, in a situation similar to that of evangelist Keith Darrell, who was arrested after preaching his religious beliefs on the Youngstown State University campus in Ohio. You may ask yourself, “Isn’t this a college campus in America—a cornerstone of knowledge, a source of revolutionary ideas?” By all accounts, the answer should be yes.

In 1969, Justice Abe Fortas ruled in Tinker v. Des Moines: “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” The understanding that democracy is the product of education—the proliferation of ideas enlightening young minds—confirmed the belief that free and unhindered expression is vital to academics. However, many modern students are finding that their constitutional rights are all but unchallenged at the entrance to campus. Colleges entice students with glossy invitations, touting the “open and challenging academic discussions” occurring in their respective collegiate communities. No mention of speech codes or free speech zones can be found—only dazzling scholastic testimonials by prospective students. Universities obviously understand the importance of free and open discourse in an academic community—but their willingness to allow such unbridled interactions is another story.

What kind of world are universities creating through their attacks on free speech and expression? By labeling some books as unacceptable or offensive, colleges are mandating what students may learn—shielding young minds from the powerful and stimulating catalyst of controversy. Through the creation of free speech zones, universities are telegraphing the message that freedom of speech is finite, limited to “the right place and the right time.” Reprimanding expression on campus through viewpoint discrimination applied through broad regulations causes students to reluctantly accept an attitude of apathy rather than hold an opinion which will only be stifled by authority. An education is becoming, essentially, a stamp of conformity—molding students into indifferent citizens who, being accustomed to limited speech, will not question the further erosion of their rights by the government.

Now, imagine an America in which the full spectrum of freedom of speech and expression was respected on college campuses. The university protestor, allowed to audibly voice their opinions to the public, will become tomorrow’s engaged citizen—a citizen who spies a problem or an injustice and rallies others to help correct it. The petitioner for an on-campus club will become tomorrow’s political organizer—amplifying the voices of his fellow citizens and promoting active involvement in government. Even the eccentric campus evangelist, freely preaching his own doctrines, will encourage other citizens to embrace their own power through expression of their interests. Silencing voices on campus does not prevent controversy—it prevents progress. So go ahead students—step outside the “Speaker’s Circle.” Step outside of the free speech zone and tell the nation what’s on your mind. This is a college campus in America, and it’s your right.