Thomas Jefferson once wrote that one goal of higher education is “to develop the reasoning faculties of our youth, enlarge their minds … and, generally, to form them to habits of reflection and correct action.” In other words, universities are places where students seek to acquire knowledge.
The idea of a university, reflected in the word’s origins, is that various disciplines can find a single space in which to discourse with each other.
To fulfill this high calling, universities must allow freedom of thought and expression on their campuses.
The goal of the university, to use Bret Weinstein’s words from the May 22, 2018 congressional joint hearing Challenges to the Freedom of Speech on College Campuses Part II, is to “teach you how to think, not what to think,” and to “give [students] the tools to evaluate [an idea] for themselves.”
Today, this freedom is in crisis on many university campuses. At the hearing, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer focused on three ways that campuses are restricting free speech: speech zones, speech codes, and viewpoint discriminatory student activity fee allocation.
1. Speech zones: Speech zones create a designated area where speech is allowed, thereby excluding free speech from the rest of campus. For example, policies at Kennesaw State University allow officials to quarantine any student speech they deem controversial—including a pro-life display—to a tiny, difficult-to-access part of campus.The delegated speech zone makes up less than 0.08 percent of the 405-acre campus.
2. Speech codes: Speech codes are university policies that prohibit or punish speech that is deemed to be offensive or discriminatory. Some codes merely allow for such restrictions through their vague wording, but others are more blatant, such as Iowa State University’s former speech code. ISU policies specifically stated that “engaging in First Amendment protected speech activities” may be punished as “harassment.” Such codes clearly violate students’ First Amendment speech protections.
3. Mandatory student activity fees: Finally, school administrators with discretion over how to allocate the school’s mandatory student activity fees sometimes do so in a manner that makes expression of unpopular viewpoints difficult. California State University-San Marcos denied their Students for Life access to student activity funds, which would have enabled them to host a pro-life speaker on campus. Even though all students are required to pay these student activity fees, CSU-San Marcos has excluded some students from the forum through their viewpoint-discriminatory allocation of the fees.
These restrictions on free speech do a disservice to the students on campus who are being taught that censorship and silencing of opposing viewpoints is somehow acceptable. Instead of being exposed to rigorous debate and true learning, too often college campuses become echo chambers for those who hold views that are considered popular at the time.
As Allison Stanger, another witness at the hearing, aptly said:
It is because human beings are instinctively tribal and prone to groupthink that freedom of speech is so important for civility, both in the polis and in the ivory tower … We need reason to combat the excesses of the extreme right and the extreme left … We need free inquiry to expose and battle injustice … The aim should not be the creation of universal codes of acceptable speech but instead the freedom for individuals and departments to exchange ideas without being ostracized by others.
No one should be shouted down or silenced for expressing their views—this is especially true on college campuses. But unless students feel they have the freedom to express their ideas in perfect safety, the culture of learning on campus will continue to suffer.
The only permission a student needs to speak anywhere on a public university campus is the First Amendment. The First Amendment guarantees that the freedom of speech will not be abridged by government entities, which include state-operated universities. This freedom should be respected and cherished by all, for the good of our universities and the students they serve, and for our society as a whole.