Most of us never stop to consider how many times a day we encounter someone on campus exercising their right to freedom of speech. You might have a large stack of those free, little green Bibles at home. Or have heard the banned book readings in the Union Courtyard. Infamous funeral picketer Fred Phelps has even made appearances on the K-State campus. Being part of a college community, we take freedom of expression for granted.
Across the nation, some universities are cracking down on student newspapers and the right of their students to assemble. Organizations like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education have sprung up to assist students at universities on “Red Alert” lists – a nasty label that indicates a college’s administration or governing body is unconcerned with the First Amendment rights of students. In 2006, the Supreme Court refused to hear arguments in the case Hosty v. Carter, in which an Illinois university shut down its student newspaper for publishing articles critical of the administration – a course of action that let the lower court’s decision stand (a major blow to student press advocates in this country).
Some students are simply unaware of their rights. A 2004 Associated Press article stated that one out of every four college students in the nation can’t list a single right named in the First Amendment; the same article said 11 percent of our professors and administrators couldn’t either.
Colleges and universities are forced to walk a thin line between allowing freedom of speech and discouraging the dissemination of hateful, violent material. Giving equal access to all groups, ideas and viewpoints is the only way to ensure each voice has a chance to be heard.
Campuses should not restrict free speech; argument and idea exchange is exactly what college is all about. During our college years, we are exposed to new ideas and concepts. We take classes we might not agree with, but probably come away smarter and more open-minded for having taken them. In 1971, in its opinion of the case Healy v. James, the Supreme Court said “the college classroom is the ‘marketplace of ideas.'”
The downside to freedom of speech is we might come in contact with ideas that are at best uncomfortable and at worst humiliating But establishing rules to restrict freedom of speech based on comfort and convenience is not the answer. University rules on harassment and hate crimes are sufficient to combat speech or actions based on hatred. A college has two free speech responsibilities: Ensure free speech is heard and campus security is upheld. To do the latter, we do not need unconstitutional bans on free speech.
Universities have a responsibility to not restrict freedom of speech on our nation’s campuses. The First Amendment and our courts have given citizens the right to speak their mind. And we have a choice. We can listen, or we can ignore. We can speak out, or we can be silent. Enjoy the privilege.
Joe Vossen is a senior in political science. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.