Free Speech on College Campuses

25th October 2018

Late last month, the political spotlight focused on the issue of free speech on college campuses in the United States. On September 17, the Department of Justice convened a three-part forum to discuss modern college culture and where it stands in respect to First Amendment rights. A week later, on September 26th, the House Education and Workforce Committee discussed the same measures. The hearings featured the testimony of various experts, some drawn from the world of academia, and others who were witnesses to various free speech injustices. The discussions highlighted the topics the constitutionality of zoning speeches, disinviting speakers, safe spaces, microaggressions, and other species of behavior that have slowly started to define campus culture.

In both discussions, there was general agreement that part of the university experience is being exposed to a wide array of thought. The consensus was that that no mind benefits when ideas are spread in an environment which is a one-sided echo chamber. Both guest speakers and members of Congress for the most part agreed foundationally that part of growing up is being exposed to viewpoints that run contrary to your own, and that there is value in knowing how to deal with disagreement in a mature manner.

During the course of the Congress Education Committee discussion, the conservatives and liberals raised a range of interesting points. Conservatives noted that the number of liberal professors vastly outnumber conservative ones, arguing that campuses are becoming a breeding ground for purely leftist ideologies. Liberals observed that colleges are no longer dominated by upper-middle class white males, as they once were. They added with growing numbers of first-generation, minority and female college students, a change in campus culture is inevitable.

Following the discussion, critics considered whether concerns over freedom of expression on campus are substantive, or whether the issue is overblown. It is generally accepted that safe-zones and other similar developments on college campuses are contrary to first amendment rights and disservices in creating coddled minds. However, Vox has argued that across 4,583 two-year and four-year institutions, there have been only 60 instances in the last two years that are indicative of a “free speech crisis.” Further, much of the debate has focused on the “disinviting” of controversial speakers. It is worth noting that, although 42 speakers were disinvited from college campuses in 2016 – a higher number than the past – 11 of these involved Milo Yiannopoulos and his “Dangerous Faggot Tour.”

There was strong bipartisan consensus that in order to develop the strongest education, one must hear points from all sides of issues. Tennessee Senator, Lamar Alexander, and various other speakers agreed that it is not in Congress’s best interest to enact legislation to address the issue. Alexander personally believed that the Chicago principle should be more strongly imposed, the heckler’s veto be outlawed, and that more conservative professors should be hired. There was unanimous agreement that the importance of First Amendment should be taught with higher priority to high school students prior to attending college. Alexander suggested that there may be value in creating a nonpartisan, independent consumer organization that could rank the one hundred best universities in terms of their commitment to free speech. He went on to urge students to learn to protest in a mature manner and to be open to differing opinions, and urged university presidents and boards to take greater leadership in addressing First Amendment rights.