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Will Free Speech Survive on College Campuses?

October 30, 2018

by Jonathan Butcher
October 30, 2018

University of Virginia students need little convincing that the freedom to speak and demonstrate is a relevant, important issue for everyone on campus. I’ll be taking part in a discussion at the University of Virginia College of Law this week about the state of campus free speech.

But around the country, the right of students to express themselves — and be protected while doing so — is being challenged.

Yet some deny there’s a problem. In August, Vox cited data from Georgetown University and said that to call the state of free speech on campus a “crisis” is “more than a little overblown.” Others have expressed doubts, too. But to embrace that stance, one must ignore the last three raucous years’ worth of free speech-related incidents on campuses — ranging from the University of Missouri to Middlebury, Vermont, to Berkeley, the birthplace of the 1960s free-speech-on-campus movement.

Students and faculty across the ideological spectrum have found themselves at the center of various events involving campus censorship lately. Last October, just two hours down Interstate 64 at William & Mary, Black Lives Matter protesters shouted down Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, an ACLU representative.

Officials at Evergreen State College in Washington State closed school and moved the 2017 graduation ceremonies after the avowedly progressive school splintered into factions. Students drove out a progressive professor who objected to a proposal that white students and professors stay off campus for a day. Ultimately, fear for his own safety and that of his family led them to go into hiding.

The lack of civil behavior on campus is turning heads, reducing applications for admission and closing alumni checkbooks. At an alumni event this April, students at Duke forced the school president off the stage and proceeded to issue a list of demands via bullhorn. It did not play well with the alums, who had come to pledge class gifts to the school. Undergrads at the University of Oregon’s gave their school president a similar treatment last fall.

Rutgers’ recent disinvitation of journalist Lisa Daftari is another more recent example. By caving in to the loudest group of “not-offended-yet-but-planning-to-be-hurt” petitioners, Rutgers’ administrators managed to deprive students of an extraordinary learning opportunity, to hear ideas that might challenge their assumptions. The university issued an apology for any “confusion” and suggested new dates, but the damage was done.

Ideas are powerful, and choosing to fear an idea instead of learning to understand it or overcome it with a better one is a poor life strategy. Things we disagree with won’t go away if we pretend they don’t exist.

North Carolina, Georgia, and Arizona are among the states that in recent years have enacted legislation to protect free speech on campus, and others are considering similar proposals.

Without question, individual safety should be a primary concern. And while unpleasant, nasty, and even hateful speech is protected by the U.S. Constitution, threats and abusive language are not. So where does this leave students and college leaders today?

First, anyone lawfully present on a public college campus has the right to speak in a public area of campus — as long as they don’t interfere with someone else’s right to the same. Schools should make a commitment to free speech and inform all students and members of the campus community that it’s not the school’s job to protect anyone from ideas they don’t like. You have as much right to debate a topic as to ignore an invited speaker.

And when an individual or group repeatedly blocks others from expressing themselves, as with a shout-down, the school should reserve the right to remove them, even if it means suspension or expulsion.

If the potential for that feels uncomfortable, here’s a recommendation: Don’t put yourself in that position in the first place. As students, you are surrounded by bright, accomplished scholars and have access to a wealth of knowledge. Use this opportunity to challenge your ideas. It’s the best way to strengthen them.

Jonathan Butcher is a senior policy analyst in The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy and a senior fellow at the Goldwater Institute.

Cross-posted from the Daily Progress (Charlottesville, VA).



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