Campus Protests Highlight Need to Protect Free Speech
Students at Yale and the University of Missouri have been exercising their First Amendment free speech right to protest—well—the right of others to exercise their right to free speech. Textbook irony.
Free speech should be enjoyed and exercised by all, not just small groups on campuses trying to insulate themselves from intellectually-challenging ideas. It is important to consider why free speech should apply to all people, not just to some. Free speech is crucial on university campuses and universities should pursue policies encouraging, not chilling, free speech.
Universities exist to educate students, allowing students to pursue knowledge. As “marketplaces of ideas,” universities offer forums for philosophical concepts to compete. These “marketplaces of ideas” lead to intellectual competition which, in turn, produce high levels of academic rigor. Academic rigor, in turn, is impossible without freedom of speech for both students and professors. Without freedom of speech, students and professors will fear reprisal for expressing controversial views.
Contrary to assertions from students at Yale, a lack of free speech on college campuses jeopardizes students’ emotional well-being. In “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt examine the effects on students of protecting them from “offensive” speech.
A campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.
If students, under the guise of “emotional discomfort,” are protected from words, ideas and people that challenge them, Lukianoff and Haidt conclude those students will be ill-prepared to enter the workplace.
Rather than recognize universities as centers of learning, students are increasingly shifting the burden of “emotional discomfort” to the professors and students who challenge their preconceived beliefs. According to the 2015 Buckley Free Speech Survey, conducted by McLaughlin & Associates, 49 percent of survey participants said they have often felt intimidated to share beliefs that differ from their professors, and 50 percent said they have often felt intimidated to share beliefs that differ from their classmates.
The University of Chicago and Purdue University have led the way in promoting freedom of speech on campus. This past January, the University of Chicago unveiled a new free speech policy statement. The statement declared:
Because the University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn. … [I]t is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.
Similarly, Purdue University, under the leadership of Mitch Daniels, revised its speech codes, eliminating any policies that conflicted with the First Amendment. Purdue also adopted a statementaffirming its commitment to academic freedom and freedom of expression.
[T]he University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose. Indeed, fostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission.
Both of these universities point the way forward for institutions struggling to provide an open forum in which students and faculty can express their ideas freely without fear of intimidation. Instead of being afraid to foster an open exchange of ideas, universities should adopt Thomas Jefferson’s words upon founding the University of Virginia:
This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.