Just over 50 years ago, students at the University of California, Berkeley protested for student’s rights – free speech in particular – on campuses. It’s tragically ironic that the same campus that once championed these campus rights now shuts out views that oppose their dominant ideologies.
The university recently cancelled Ann Coulter’s scheduled appearance – again – amidst fears of violent protests. In response, Coulter said, “Everyone who should be for free speech has turned tail and run.”
This is not isolated to the University of California, Berkeley either. Experts say “students and faculty stifle speech themselves, especially if it involves conservative causes.” Rutgers University, Claremont McKenna College, Auburn University, and, recently, Middlebury College have all held the same narrative.
Roger Ream, president of the Fund for American Studies, writes, “One of the cornerstones of education is engaging with the unfamiliar and exploring different viewpoints. We must reject this new anti-free speech movement for what it is: a dangerous withdrawal from academic discourse, and a threat to American democracy.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education compiled a database of over 300 attempts to disinvite speakers to campuses since 2000. Nearly two-thirds of those attempts were to disinvite conservative speakers. This should not be too shocking as the Washington Times reports that liberal professors at leading universities outnumber their conservative counterparts 12-1. The Wall Street Journal says “Campus authorities disinvite controversial speakers and look the other way when students shout down dissenters who somehow slipped through. The transparent goal is to prevent any deviation from the reigning orthodoxy.”
Meanwhile, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) spoke at Liberty University – a predominately conservative university – in 2015. In fact, students were required to attend. Yet, there were no protests, violent episodes, uprisings or civil unrest.
President Jerry Falwell, Jr. said, “[Liberty University has] always believed that our convocation should be a forum for different views, a time to ask questions and learn. A university is supposed to be a place where all ideas are discussed.”
Rated as the most conservative college in the America, Liberty invited a speaker not aligned with their primary views and challenged the student body with unfamiliar ideas. One student noted that “Sanders spurred debates that carried on after he left.” The Socratic Method in action!
Coincidentally, Senator Sanders defended Ann Coulter’s right to speak. The Senator from Vermont said “people have a right to give their two cents-worth, give a speech, without fear of violence and intimidation. To me, it’s a sign of intellectual weakness. If you can’t ask [her] in a polite way questions which expose the weakness of her arguments, if all you can do is boo, or shut her down, or prevent her from coming, what does that tell the world?”
Sanders advocates dismantling the opposition academically and civilly, hearing them out in the process so as to debate and question their viewpoints whilst reflecting on one’s own views – not just shutting them out.
One can only imagine the outcome if speakers viewed as bigoted – or any number of other labels – were heard and properly debated on their stances, then we may see the fault in their stance or even reflect on our own. Rather, the door is slammed shut, the power to the microphone is turned off and the echoes of familiar sentiments and views reverberate, over and over.
Some colleges have already sought to protect free speech – a right that should arguably be protected already – on campuses regardless of viewpoint or stance.
In a halfhearted attempt to guard free speech, many campuses have established “free speech zones” where students may voice their opinions. However, many of these are small, require students to jump through hoops to book and are out of the way; it’s far cry from a sincere attempt at protecting a right that should be inherent.
In fact, Texas Tech University’s free speech zone was deemed unconstitutional in 2004. The zone in question was a gazebo, 20 feet in diameter, that could hold almost 40 people. The ruling deemed that it was unconstitutional for a public institution to designate free speech exclusively to such zones.
In 2016, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed into law two bills designed to protect freedom of speech rights on campus. This first, HB 2615, is designed to do away with such free speech zones. The other, HB 2548, adds misdemeanor penalties for any person who obstructs another person’s right to gain access and attend a hearing, political event, or government meeting.
Speaking about the bills, Governor Ducey said, “The First Amendment right of free speech is a bedrock founding principle of our Republic. Likewise, part of the university experience is to be able to express diverse views, openly, without fear of retribution or intimidation—and to be exposed to other views and perspectives, even if they aren’t politically correct or popular.”
In contrast to Arizona, Louisiana Governor John B. Edwards recently vetoed a bill designed to protect free speech on campuses despite passing Louisiana’s House and Senate by votes of 95-0 and 30-3 respectively.
Despite occurring over 50 years ago, the debate over free speech on campuses across the country seems to have been reignited, this time from the opposite side. With no clear end in sight, campuses will need to navigate these tumultuous times cautiously.
“At the moment when young minds are supposed to assess the strengths and weaknesses of arguments, they are answering challenges to their beliefs with anger and violence instead of facts and reason,” said USA Today.
After the incident at Middlebury College, President Laurie L. Patton wrote, saying “we must prepare young Americans, whatever their background, to take on arguments that offend them; to enter the public square with better ideas supported with better reason, better research, better logic, and better data; to risk being offended and to argue back even when they might feel afraid.”
If a student is not challenged to think critically, structure sound arguments that can be staunchly defended or consider the view of the opposition, that student risks living in an echo chamber, having dug an ideological trench by which there is not the slightest bit of room to consider any other view. This is a frightening possibility, but it is becoming all the more prevalent across campuses, predominantly on one side too.
Responding to one of the incidents at the University of California, Berkeley, one student said, “It’s a sad irony in the fact that the Free Speech Movement was founded here and tonight, someone’s free speech got shut down.”
Ultimately, this is not strictly limited to campuses either. The social norms surrounding hearing out opposition are changing with the rise of technology and social media, but we must take a hard look in the mirror at ourselves and be willing to listen to one another – always.
As Evelyn Beatrice Hall once said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend your right to say it.” Let that quote ring true, now more than ever, as we celebrate our beautiful nation’s independence and all the freedoms, rights and more that it brings us.
Happy Fourth of July!