Upholding Freedom of Speech, Lest it be Lost

Written by: Jessica Landgraf

Primary Source:  Green & Write, February 15, 2017


Change in the atmosphere of college campuses over the last several months is salient—to both those on campuses and those in the nation at large—through the amount of media coverage highlighting the unrest on campuses following the presidential election. There seems to be no end in sight as more issues are highlighted through protesting. InsideHigherEd indicates in a recent article that this is not a new response to political turmoil, and it recounts other incidences over the last several centuries. Whether a new trend on college campuses, or momentary outcry, it is clear that students feel compelled to use their voices to express their support for or opposition against current political events.

Violence occurring during the protests has colleges on high alert. Campuses are revising policing strategies, speaking out against violence (often attributed to outside ‘anarchist’ groups), and taking sides in the debate over the right to, and state of, free speech.

This is an opportune time to dig in to what various stakeholders think about the meaning of the right to free speech on college campuses, and the arguments for opposing sides.

Limiting Free Speech

More than half of American universities now have restrictive speech codes that impinge on the free speech of students, faculty, and staff. According to Donald P. Moynihan, changes to campus speech codes at University of Wisconsin-Madison (where he is a professor) can be attributed in part to state legislature. He recounts that several times in the past six months state funding was at stake because of concerns that the university was teaching topics such as homosexuality, gender, and race. Although not always formalized in policy, additional threats to free speech have recently come in forms such as the ‘Professor Watchlist’. This online platform was seen as a threat to academic freedom and a limit on the free expression of ideas and debate that are essential in university classrooms.

Right to Free Speech for All

One of the loudest proponents of free speech is the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Although we all understand how important our right to free speech is, it is often hard to see how it also applies to those that don’t share our point of view, especially if we see opposing views as divisive. The ACLU makes a powerful argument for why it is important to protect everyone’s free speech right. Briefly, the ACLU contends:

  • Speech codes adopted by government-financed state colleges and universities amount to government censorship, in violation of the Constitution.
  • When one of us is denied this right, all of us are denied.
  • Institutions should have a mission to facilitate learning through open debate and study.
  • When disagreement is out in the open, people can see the problem, organize effectively to counter bad attitudes, possibly change them, and forge solidarity against the forces of intolerance.
  • Universities have to do the hard work of recruitment to increase faculty and student diversity; promote counseling to raise awareness about bigotry and its history; and change curricula to institutionalize more inclusive approaches to all subject matter.

Campuses Taking Action

As institutions of learning, colleges and universities have the opportunity to uphold the right to free speech while educating students on productive ways to exert that right. A recent article from InsideHigherEd provides a list (including links) of actions educators can take to prepare their charges to utilize and understand this moment in history:

  • Approach student activism with the right attitude. Student protest is not a bad thing, unless it is accompanied by violence or seriously disrupts the educational process. Student protest provides a teachable moment not just for those who are protesting but for the rest of the campus community. Consider it a timely opportunity for problem-based learning.
  • Provide students with opportunities to gather, identify the issues that concern them the most and identify their networks. This includes providing students with physical spaces to convene and connecting them with faculty members or people in the community who share their interest.
  • Teach the arts of discussion. Your institution already has experienced facilitators among faculty members, administrators and students. Have them teach others to facilitate and engage in constructive discussions as a foundation to organizing. Many civic organizations provide training (see the resources section of this publication).
  • Study, deliberate, study: don’t let students go down some rabbit hole of alternative facts or myopic analysis. Insist that students answer questions, like what do we know about this issue? Is what we know reliable? How will we fill knowledge gaps? And most importantly, what are all of the perspectives on this issue, including unpopular ones unrepresented in this group? Weigh the pros and cons of different perspectives rather than dismissing them without consideration or, worse, denigrating the people who hold them.
  • Help students think positively by envisioning “the mission accomplished.” What will the world look like if their goals are achieved? The process of identifying a shared vision among group members is in and of itself a good lesson in framing, persuasion, collaboration and compromise.
  • Teach the history and most promising practices of social change movements. There are thousands of well-researched publications to consider as text. We offer two very different resources: Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King and Southern Christian Leadership Conference by David Garrow offers 500-plus pages of insight into the meticulous, long-game planning, as well as the strategies used to overcome unthinkable barriers, by leaders of the African-American civil rights movement. In her research for the Ford Foundation, Hahrie Han, a political scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, outlines essential strategies, such as coalition building among civic organizations, political leaders and other potential allies.
  • Emphasize the importance of voting and what’s at stake when candidates have vastly different policy positions. Our National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement found that only 45 percent of college and university students voted in 2012. And while we haven’t analyzed all the final numbers for 2016 yet, as the election demonstrated, who turns out to vote matters.

As uncomfortable as it is for all of us to listen to beliefs opposing our own, we should challenge ourselves to consider the arguments of the opposition. Even though there may never be a consensus reached, only through educating ourselves of our opponent’s views can there be hope of a productive argument and mutual understanding.

Contact Jessica: landgr16@msu.edu

The following two tabs change content below.
Jessica Landgraf

Latest posts by Jessica Landgraf (see all)