Campus Free Speech In a Nutshell:

Our God-given and First Amendment-protected right to express ourselves—through our faith, through our speech, through the press, through assembly or through petition—defines much of what it means to be free. Silencing others is what dictators and totalitarians do to protect their firm grip on power.

Today, freedom of expression is needed more than ever, especially on our nation’s campuses. The answer to “offensive” or “hurtful” speech is not to “cancel” speech or to provide “safe spaces” where those who are easily offended can hide from speech. The answer is more speech.

In Depth:

“Free speech is both a right and a responsibility. To that end, we can embrace a Golden Rule of free speech: seeking to understand as to be understood. A willingness to learn from any idea, even ones with which you disagree or ones that aren’t your own. It’s also the humility to listen with the understanding that you yourself might be mistaken.”

Betsy DeVos

There are of course bad ideas and good ideas. In order to pursue truth, the exchange of both good and bad ideas should be conducted openly, where good ones can rightly defeat bad ones with open dialogue. All too often though, speech codes on college campuses trample freedom of speech and derail the primary mission of a school and of learning: to pursue truth.

Shockingly, students are often told there is no such thing as truth. Acknowledging that there is truth means certain feelings or certain ideas could be wrong.  As the purpose of learning is forgotten, ignored or denied, we are inundated daily with stories of school administrators and faculty manipulating marketplaces of ideas.

Too many students are told their beliefs are “violent”—or perhaps more frightening, that silence on an issue is also “violence.” It turns out that too many who preach tolerance are actually some of the most intolerant people on earth.

I think about the University of Michigan, which established a “Bias Response Team.” This gave campus cops the power to investigate students for incidents of “bias” and hurt feelings at the expense of free speech. It wasn’t until a Circuit Court ordered the Team to be disbanded that the school agreed to end its unconstitutional harassment codes.

While they eliminated the Bias Response Team, the school still employs 163 diversity-related administrators (more than 2x the number of history professors they employ) who cost taxpayers and students more than 10 million dollars every year. They focus on every kind of diversity except a diversity of ideas.

The University of Michigan isn’t alone in seeking to limit free expression. More than 200 other colleges and universities still have teams of speech police who can penalize students, faculty and staff for hurting someone’s feelings.

Don’t get me wrong, feelings are important, but learning and seeking truth isn’t about feelings. It’s about thinking and being willing to engage with all ideas—even ones with which you disagree.

At least one university is getting it right and leading the way in addressing the free speech crisis on college campuses: the University of Chicago.  The school has always affirmed a commitment to free and open inquiry. A committee there has reaffirmed that commitment in a statement of principles – not new policies or codes.

In it, the committee wrote that the University “guarantees…the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn…It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make…judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose.” More institutions should embrace the University of Chicago’s approach to free speech on campuses for all students.

Truth can be pursued, and it can be known. Students of all ages need the freedom to seek it.  The ultimate solution begins with each one of us. So, I encourage everyone to follow the Golden Rule of free speech: seek to understand as to be understood.

No school and no government can force its people to be responsible. That’s something individuals must freely and consciously choose on an ongoing basis.

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