As part of my internship I was required to pen an op-ed. Working in education policy, and being a recent college graduate naturally drew me toward the issues of free speech currently plaguing college campuses. Just one among many issues currently facing higher ed.
Here’s a link to the piece, but for those of you who are lazy like me I’ll briefly summarize.
Recently, state legislatures have passed bills prohibiting free speech zones and other such restrictions. This is all well and good, but as I’d like to point out, without disciplinary action to back those bills up nothing will really change. The war being waged against free speech will only end if those fighting choose to stop (i.e. campus leaders and students).
At the end of the day, it is up to campus leaders to foster an environment where ideas can be exchanged freely. They need to make a commitment not only to the first amendment, but also to the mission of their institution. In doing research for the piece, I looked at several different universities’ websites to read their mission statements and values. Every one expressed a commitment to fostering a healthy exchange of ideas. Yet these are the same places that now institute “spontaneous free speech zones” or “permit-required free speech zones,” as well as the places making headlines for protests turned riots in response to “controversial” speakers (aka anyone who speaks about ideas contrary to public opinion, usually center-right in ideology).
Furthermore, if we want to reform our campuses, students need to be willing to stand up for their rights.
I like to classify students into three major groups: offenders, defenders, and Switzerland. The offenders, typically students with a progressive ideology, are the ones who are calling for restrictions of free speech. No doubt some are well intentioned. Meanwhile, there are the defenders, typically students with a conservative background, who are willing to speak up against free speech restrictions and are often members of the groups sponsoring so-called controversial speakers. Finally, and I would argue this is the largest group, there’s Switzerland. These students may lean toward either side but typically don’t say anything. The way I see it, is this group of students is willingly ceding their rights to free speech simply by not speaking up.
Ultimately, the need for reform is obvious. The integrity of higher education cannot be maintained so long as there are free speech zones, safe spaces, and other restrictions of expression halting conversation. In a broader, and melo-dramatic, sense reform matters because it is the future of society at stake. Higher education is where our future leaders are currently located. If they are not taught to think critically and have a dialogue about things they disagree with, then what will culture look like when they step up to lead?