Freedom of speech only goes so far in college

Andy Slaven

Across the country, college campuses have created more and more free speech codes in order to protect their students from offensive points of view.

The speech codes range from ‘free speech zones’ to the abolishment of certain offensive language. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an example of speech codes on campus include a ban on “offensive language” or “disparaging remarks.”

Universities argue that their free speech codes allow for a safer learning environment where students and professors can go about their business in a stable manner.

Unlawful policies like this basically put constraints on free speech and stem from the argument that we are simply moving forward as a society and therefore should start prohibiting certain views that the vast majority disagree with.

Northern Michigan University has a few speech codes including this one on student posters that reads: “All notices, posters, signs, and banners must be registered for posting in the Center for Student Enrichment (1205 University Center) before they are displayed. Materials which are not registered may not be posted.”

FIRE points out that even this can hinder the free speech of students: “The intellectual vitality of a university depends on this competition—something that cannot happen properly when students or faculty members fear punishment for expressing views that might be unpopular with the public at large or disfavored by university administrators.”

Traditionally, college campuses were the birthplaces for complete free flowing creativity and a home for peaceful activists to spread their message. It was a safe haven for unconventional thought regardless of who was being offended.

Now, certain universities claim that we need to push radical views out of the way because they offend some people or
because they are too one way or the other.

Fifty years ago, what may have once been considered the radical view can now be considered the norm. For example, it was conventional to think two people of the same sex should never be together and that only opposite sex relationships should be protected.

Imagine if the millions of ‘radical’ activists had been silenced due to the idea that their views offended the more traditional thinkers or even those who believed what they did because they were following the river of societal norms.

The same thought process can be applied to other events in U.S. history that played a large part in student activism on campuses, such as the protests against the Vietnam War and  people who spoke out against segregation. Imagine if the same policies many universities were using now had been applied then. Campuses would have shut down antiwar protests because they offended many soldiers and they would have shut down anti-segregation activists because they offended many other people with the opposite view. Where would our country be now had free speech not had a huge impact in these areas?

I am in no way justifying certain radical views some people might hold, but simply saying that as a society, if we truly believe in free speech, we need to allow everyone to not only have their views but allow them to display them freely.

A perfect example of this can be shown from the University of Oklahoma (OU). About a year ago, OU’s president expelled two members of a campus fraternity for their “leadership role in leading a racist and exclusionary chant.” However, since OU is a public university, it cannot punish speech protected by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has voted numerous times to uphold the First Amendment even for racist speech and therefore, the decision by the OU president was unlawful and exactly the direction we shouldn’t be heading with postsecondary education. Other campuses such as the University of South Carolina and Bucknell University have followed with similar punishments to their students for their voices.

I believe philosopher Noam Chomsky said it best: “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” As a society, we shouldn’t shut down any thought, no matter how ridiculous, in the name of social order. A country that does not promote the free flowing views of its citizens is doomed to one day become a nation of controlled thought and no creativity.