Freedom of Speech?

Colleges Infringe on Free Expression

Freedom of Speech?

In January, residents of Paris flooded the streets holding up pens to show their support of free speech, in response to the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine. However, one type of persistent attack on free speech in the United States escapes largely unnoticed. The majority of colleges and universities maintain absurdly broad speech codes and policies that allow them to restrict where and in what way students express themselves. Whether intentionally or not, they restrict free speech in order to champion political correctness and civility or avoid offending students.

As public institutions for legal adults, state colleges are required to respect the First Amendment, which protects even offensive speech. Almost every college or university advertises itself as a place where students can expand their worldview, think critically, and engage in debate. This cannot happen if colleges can repress viewpoints they consider offensive or uncivil.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, is an organization that defends students’ rights, rewrites speech codes, and raises awareness of the erosion of free speech at academic institutions. It has supported students in 250 legal cases and has been a part of 135 changes in campus speech policies. It is clear that FIRE has the Constitution on its side – it has won every case it has participated in.

Here are some of the most common infringements on free speech that FIRE encounters:

1.  Overly broad speech codes
College policies often allow administrators to punish any speech that “embarrasses,” “demeans,” or “offends” another student. These conditions are subjective, which allows the rule to be selectively applied. Students face absurd disciplinary measures when others claim to be offended. This creates an environment where people are afraid to hold unpopular positions. Students may even feel entitled to a right not to be offended, something no university should attempt to promise. In a study of 427 U.S. colleges and universities, FIRE found that almost 60% have policies that severely restrict free speech.
2. Free speech zones
FIRE recently fought against the University of Cincinnati’s policy to restrict demonstrations and rallies to a tiny “free speech zone,” which students could only use with approval from above. One in six universities maintain these zones.
3. Disinviting speakers
What do students do if they disagree with the viewpoint of a speaker who has been invited to their college? More and more frequently, they complain until the speaker is disinvited or chooses to withdraw. That colleges allow this to take place is an affront on their promise to challenge students with exposure to different points of view.

It also doesn’t bode too well for the future. Students like those who disinvite speakers may feel entitled, even morally obligated, to suppress opinions they do not agree with. Out in the world, however, you don’t make change by getting people to be quiet. You make change by arguing for what you believe, convincing people, and working together. If a viewpoint wins out, it should be because it’s the best one, not because it’s the only one.