The Status of Free Speech on College Campuses

Colleges have long served as the institutional battleground for political dispute. I would argue that a contributing factor of this is that a majority of people think of colleges as bubbles filled with predominantly liberal views; anecdotally, this viewpoint isn’t wrong, as during my time on campus I have certainly met a larger number of liberals than conservatives. Yet I think the aspect of this that worries people is not that there are larger liberal populations on college campuses, but that college campuses have become so progressive and politically correct that opposing viewpoints get shut out and the only discourse that remains is self-perpetuating.

Several weeks ago, The University of Texas chapter of Young Conservatives of Texas (YCT) tabled to support the nomination of Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Several signs at the tabling included phrases such as “Kavanaugh did nothing wrong” and “Justice for Kavanaugh.” Obviously, this struck a nerve with many people. Soon after the event began, a crowd had already gathered around the YCT group with individuals tearing up signs. A shouting match ensued. Afterward, many on social media argued that this violated their First Amendment rights. This assumption is incorrect.

The First Amendment outlines what the government can and can’t do in terms of placing limits on freedoms. It prevents the government, not individuals nor companies, from limiting free speech. No government agency prevented YCT from protesting. In fact, The University of Texas, a public university, released a statement saying that they “believe that all student organizations and individual students have a right to express their opinions on campus. The University of Texas at Austin is a place for dialogue, and at times there will be views expressed that some may disagree with.”

Often times when people mention freedom of speech they are bringing up the value, not the legal statute. However, if we were to discuss free speech as a value at University, it becomes a different issue. It becomes less about regulating government and more about the free exchange of ideas. Stanley Fish, professor of law at Florida International University, argues that free speech in this sense is not an academic value. In a free exchange of ideas, people, regardless of qualifications, are equally allowed to share their views.

In contrast, academia values credibility and accuracy. For instance, if one was writing an essay for an astronomy class, he or she would certainly not include flat Earth theories, because they are not peer-reviewed and lack empirical research. Viewpoints in academia require merit. However, the free exchange of ideas brings any willing party into the conversation, making it a democratic ideal; on the other hand, academic inquiry is entirely meritocratic. Hence, free speech is not an academic value, but the accuracy of speech is. It is also worth noting that free speech on college campuses in the legal sense is not necessarily an all-inclusive deal either; the 1968 Supreme Court case Pickering v. Board of Education ruled that at public universities speech is protected as long as it isn’t related to the personal or internal operations of the university. If the speech is related, then the school can regulate it the same way a business might censor its employees.

In the end, college is a place where people learn and discuss. That cannot happen if people are shouted down. At the same time, we live in a society that values free expression, and just how the YCT is entitled to advocate for the nomination of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, other people are entitled to tell them otherwise. The problem is that since many universities have taken on roles as indifferent philosophical facilitators they’ve strayed from their core purpose of education. It’s time colleges wake up and accept their role as only managers of crowd control so that students can learn and understand, rather than get trapped in the perpetual gridlock of today’s political climate.

Categories: Campus

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