What if your perspectives and ideas – impactful enough to create positive change or draw attention to terrible injustice – couldn’t be heard by your peers because your university felt “threatened” by them?
This modern-day dilemma is real, and it flies in the face of the first amendment to the U.S. constitution, which protects our free speech with the notion of lively and fruitful political and social discussion in mind. Not only does censoring speech at universities disregard the intentions of the framers of our democracy, at its core it insults the intelligence of students with an assumption that they can’t tolerate provocative or dissenting perspectives.
Universities need to provide a foundation for the evolution and maturation of our viewpoints on social justice, politics, and religion. To prepare us for life, college must teach us to become inquisitive about opinions that differ from ours without feeling pressured, targeted, scared, or triggered. Instead, we need to be enlightened so that we can flourish in the real world where diversity of thought is abound. The path to this enlightenment results from informed understanding of new or foreign ideas reached through listening, questioning, and even challenging.
Our nation was founded when people came together, melding a variety of ideas to reach a consensus through civil discourse. This basic but resonant testament to the power of open engagement must become a foundational strategy to be implemented across all higher learning institutions of the United States. Our founding fathers would have wanted this. Yet in our current times, we see numerous examples of censorship on university campuses:
At Pierce College in California, Kevin Shaw was reprimanded for handing out copies of the constitution outside of the “free speech zone,” a tiny space set aside by the college as only place on campus where the First Amendment can be exercised.
Editors at The Daily Kansan resorted to suing University of Kansas administrators for First Amendment violations after those administrators slashed the newspaper’s budget designed by student government members to retaliate against the newspaper for editorial criticizing university student government campaign policies. The editors won and regained funding.
The newspaper at the University of Memphis also faced funding cuts for its critical assessment of the school’s response to campus sexual assault.
Legal precedents surrounding free speech in public learning are complicated. Decisions at the elementary and secondary levels giving schools some control over publications to avoid chaos should not be equally applied to colleges, where the student body is largely comprised of free-thinking adults (a notion that Healy v. James seemed to support in 1967). After all, the original Supreme Court decision on free expression on university campuses (Keyishian v. Board of Regents, 1967) characterized the classroom as “the marketplace of ideas,” further asserting that “the nation’s future depends on leaders trained through wide exposure to the robust exchange of ideas which discovers truth.”
In a democracy, free speech is necessary for learning. Education is not a one-track path. Young adulthood – with its first forays into independence in living and ideas – is the most important season of life for shaping and molding a set of beliefs. Students who are prevented from hearing the prolific opinions of those around them, then, are stunted in their maturation. Zachary Wood, president of Uncomfortable Learning at Williams University, is known for his openness to controversial speech (even if he is personally radically opposed to it) because by doing so “we challenge ourselves to consider the possibility that we might be wrong on the things we feel the deepest conviction about. It’s not necessarily about your views changing; it’s about gaining a deeper understanding.” Wood knows that grasping other’s viewpoints, and who among our population agrees with them and why, can be the key to understanding our differences and reaching compromise. We will, we must, hear opinions that are way outside our comfort zones; it’s critical to understanding what makes people tick and how to work and get along with them. Maybe hearing opposing viewpoints could change own perspectives, or maybe it will just make our dissenting ones stronger. Either way, valuable learning is achieved through the exchange.
Shielding students from harsh options goes against not only our founders; it goes against our natural learning process. As students we need to hear both the uplifting and ugly, so we can fine-tune our own belief systems while learning how to respond to dissent. Even banning expression that borders on “hate speech” doesn’t eradicate the hate itself and can make the “hateful” perpetrator feel alienated, breeding more hate. Universities who intervene in our rights to expression hurt all of us: they prevent us from growing and maturing intellectually, and they hurt themselves by thwarting spirited but ultimately productive discourse capable of affecting powerful progress.