Link copied to clipboard!

How Did Colleges Fall From Championing Free Speech to Silencing Alternative Voices?

By · Jun 25, 2022 · 5 min read

How Did Colleges Fall From Championing Free Speech to Silencing Alternative Voices?

Colleges and Universities have long been centers of debate on political and social issues. Since the Colonial Era, college students in America have been vocal about what they stand for and believe in. In his article, “On Camus Protests: Free Speech, Protests, Discrimination and Power,” which was written for the American Bar Association, Tyler Holmes notes that students protested bad food at Harvard in 1638, and bad butter in 1766. While the topics of protest aren’t necessarily considered that serious compared to other more pressing political topics, the fact remains that collective student action and free speech have been quintessential experiences of college students in America. Universities, being that they are institutions designed to provide students with a means to engage with others’ perspectives and experiences, grow in knowledge and develop their own personal beliefs, and give students a chance to express themselves and act on their convictions if they so choose.  One of the best ways that can do this is by providing Media Bias Education Programs.  Expression comes from all sides politically, and students should be able to hear and respect the different opinions of their peers freely and without repression from other students, faculty, and the institutions at large–no matter the opinion.

The student movements that are best remembered are those that happened after World War II and the influx of students that entered higher education thanks to the passage of the GI Bill. During the 1950s and 1960s, civil rights were at the forefront of the college free speech movement; student sit-ins and other means of collective action were vastly popular. Universities would shut down or close in order to prevent demonstrations. By the 1960s, the escalating civil unrest had protests spreading to college campuses across the country; universities and law enforcement intended to put the unrest to bed, which resulted in fatalities in separate incidents at Kent State University and Jackson State University.

Protection of Freedom of Expression

All universities do, however, have a legal obligation to protect their students’ First Amendment rights and freedom of expression, however, private institutions are not bound to allow students free speech like their public counterparts. The Supreme Court held in Healy v. James (1972), that “state colleges and universities are not enclaves immune from the sweep of the first amendment.” Moreover, the Court held that “public institutions of higher education must not refuse recognition of student groups based on unsupported fear of disruption but instead bear a heavy burden to justify a ‘prior restraint,’… a governmental content-based prohibition of expression on account of First Amendment protection.” Public universities are not allowed to discriminate against potential guest speakers on the basis of ideology, but they are able to impose time, place, and manner restrictions.

During the past twenty years, there has been some discussion surrounding the fact that conservative students on campus are having their voices silenced by other, more liberal students and professors. There are a series of incidents starting in early 2017 that they use to illustrate this trend. A speech by Milo Yiannopolus at the University of California, Berkeley, was disrupted by violent protests. Students at Middlebury College interrupted a speech being given by Charles Murray. Protesters associated with Black Lives Matter interrupted Heather MacDonald’s speech at the University of California, Los Angeles; Black Lives Matter activists again disrupted MacDonald at Claremont McKenna University. Ann Coulter’s appearance at the University of California, Berkeley was canceled when the university stated that they were unable to find “a safe and suitable venue” for the event. In response to these events, at a Judiciary Committee Hearing, U.S. Senators posed questions to First Amendment lawyers, university administrators, and college students regarding free speech. Republican members of the Committee were especially concerned about the cancelation of many provocative (conservative) speakers across the country; Chairman Chuck Grassley can be quoted as saying that the protection of free speech had been “sacrificed to the altar of political correctness.”

Stanley Kurtz, James Manley, and Jonathan Butcher, in writing Campus Free Speech: A Legislative Proposal for the conservative Goldwater Institute, argue that “Freedom of Speech is dying on our college campuses and is increasingly imperiled in society at large.” They use speaker bans, “shutdowns”, that interrupt or stop speakers, safe spaces, and push restrictive speech policies as evidence, and they believe that college students and young people should be “confronted with new ideas, especially ideas with which they disagree.” They are also concerned with the alleged lack of neutrality expressed by college professors and administrators regarding salient political issues. Their report sees these administrators as being underminers of free speech because of their turning a blind eye to student activism and tendency to capitulate to student demands. Lawmakers, especially Republicans, have passed or have attempted to pass bills in order to make sure that conservative student voices don’t get shut out. In response to the perception of students being unable to respect or handle positions opposite or different from their own, some of these bills have gone as far as having universities punish students who are thought of as interfering with the expression of others. While there have been instances where protest of conservative speakers has dissolved into some form of violence, for example, at Vermont’s Middlebury College, where a professor had been injured for facilitating a talk, most of the protests and organized efforts have been non-violent.

Importance of the Freedom of Expression in University Settings

Universities, by design, are places where students should feel safe and are able to access all sorts of information.  Professors should help expose young people to ideas that they might not agree with or have had access to before, but not push or punish students if they disagree or have different personal beliefs and viewpoints on both sides of the aisle.  It is important to be open to viewpoints other than your own. Free speech is a right protected by the Constitution, and one that we should not take for granted. Both conservative and liberal speakers should be allowed and invited to talk on campus, but students also should have a right to respectfully disagree – allowing them to hold true to their convictions. Expression begins on a personal level; students of all political factions should feel comfortable with expressing themselves in discussion with each other and in the classroom. Arguing ideas that can be defended by facts is important and something that universities try to instill upon their students.

Students have the opportunities to grow politically and intellectually when being exposed to ideas that differ from their own and making sure that all students are able to freely express themselves in discussions and debates is important to upholding the ideals and tenets of our democracy. Listening doesn’t mean that you have to agree, but listening makes you more aware of what people experience and how they live in the world around you–whether that be in a classroom or on your couch, watching the news. Hearing viewpoints that are alternative to our own can help us grow in understanding, even if we don’t agree. Biasly’s easy-to-navigate website and features can help bring you different perspectives of the same story from trusted sources. Our side-by-side news compassion is a simple way for you to get news from left-leaning, right-leaning, and politically neutral sources. We make sure that all sides and voices are heard and that you, the reader, is as well informed as possible.

Most Popular

Looking to save time on finding the best news stories?
Get increased access to the site, as well as the best stories delivered to your inbox.

    I agree to the privacy policy and would like to receive email updates and promotions.

    Fighting fear with facts.
    Top stories and custom news delivered to your inbox, at a frequency that works for you.

      I agree to the privacy policy and would like to receive email updates and promotions.

      Copy link