“Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom – and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech.” Despite being written by one of our nation’s founding fathers, these words of Benjamin Franklin had to be submitted to a newspaper under a pseudonym in order to be published. Fittingly, both Franklin’s words and his attempt to avoid censorship represented a value that continues to be upheld by our Constitution today: the freedom of speech. But perhaps nowhere is this conviction as important as on the college campus – a place of innovation and relentless discussion. In institutions of higher learning, free speech introduces people to new ideas and fuels scholarly pursuits. Without this fundamental right, students’ ability to gain knowledge is hindered, and as a result, society’s capacity to make progress begins to shrink.
The recent proliferation of “free speech zones” has had a devastating effect on college students’ first amendment rights. For instance, at the University of Cincinnati, a student was handing out flyers for a right-to-work initiative with his student group, Young Americans for Liberty, when he was approached by an administrator. Chris Morbitzer was told that he and his organization had to stay in a specific area on campus dubbed “the free speech zone”. This small area constituted less than 0.1% of the entire campus and was far away from any foot traffic, effectively negating the purpose of any sort of protest. The university cited that the students’ use of their rights was disrupting the education of other students.
Ironically, through restricting Morbitzer’s ability to express his opinions, the university stopped an integral part of the educational process: discussion and exposure to new ideas. Fortunately, after seeking help from the Foundation in Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Morbitzer was able to successfully sue the university and reaffirm his right to voice his opinion on campus. Although Morbitzer was successful in his lawsuit against his university, similar restrictions of students’ speech continue to be in place across the nation. At Los Angeles Pierce College, Kevin Shaw was told he had to stay in a “free speech zone” when simply handing out copies of the Constitution. Contrary to what the name implies, “free speech zones” discourage the free exchange of ideas by making it harder for students to express their ideas to others. When petitioning about current events, having to reserve the “free speech zone” weeks in advance means having a rally after the event is no longer relevant.
Coupled with the miniscule size and the secluded nature of these designated areas, these restrictions make it impossible to have an exchange of ideas. College is a crucial time for students to develop their own opinions, and they can only do so effectively when hearing what others have to say. Moreover, academic free speech is the foundation for any university’s ability to innovate, make discoveries, and provide a quality education.But free speech is not only pertinent to when and where people are allowed to speak; it also manifests in who is allowed to speak. Once the birthplace of the free speech movement in the 1960s, the University of California-Berkeley has acted against its core values by preventing a string of controversial guests from speaking on campus due to student protests. Through denying people like Ann Coulter from voicing their opinions, the university unwittingly denies its students the ability to have a well-rounded education.
When the university alone is allowed to determine whom students are allowed to listen to, the university controls what ideas are acceptable, and conformity to this singular opinion becomes the norm. This becomes a slippery slope, potentially opening the door for more widespread censorship. Only through allowing people with controversial opinions to speak can society continue to move forward. Controversy sparks debate, and it is only through its subsequent discourse that students can discover alternative perspectives, that perhaps their preconceived way of viewing the world is not the best. Without debate, students fall into a state of complacency, unable to challenge or modify existing ideas. To prevent certain people from voicing their opinions is to arbitrarily declare that one person’s opinion matters more than another simply because the latter makes some people uncomfortable. When a university buckles under the pressure of a group of students that disagrees with the views of a speaker, a “mob mentality” prevails, killing discussion and silencing the minority.
Students do not go to college to be sheltered; they go to college to gain the skills to become the next generation of leaders. They will fail if they simply choose to sweep aside a viewpoint when they disagree with it. Institutions of higher learning should allow – If not encourage – students to hear from people who have differing opinions. It is not the job of the university to tell students what to think; rather, it is the responsibility of the university to give students the resources to explore a wide-range of opinions so they can learn how to think for themselves. In an increasingly complex world, it is imperative that universities prepare students with these types of robust critical-thinking skills. The concept of free speech is not new, but it is more important than ever on the modern college campus. From smaller community colleges to prestigious powerhouse universities, institutions of higher learning need to create environments that are conducive to debate and free expression of ideas. Preventing students from expressing their opinions means preventing students from developing as intellects.
Free speech is an integral part of the educational process. Without this fundamental right, students can never challenge the status quo, and societal progress stagnates. In a world where students’ thoughts are confined to boxes drawn on the ground and intellectuals are driven away through protest, we run the risk of creating a generation of graduates who do not have the ability to think for themselves nor the conviction to make the world a better place.