Entire Campus Should Be Safe Space for Free Speech

Published March 22, 2017

In a simpler age, one major argument for a young scholar going to college was the exposure he or she would receive to a wide spectrum of viewpoints, vigorously and freely debated. Sadly, many institutions of higher learning now seem determined to protect students from free speech, especially if controversial views run counter to progressive orthodoxy.

Thus, a culture of censorship now grips many universities via such mechanisms as minuscule free-speech zones, restrictive speech codes, safe spaces for those taking umbrage to criticism (so-called “snowflakes”), mandatory diversity training, and speaker dis-invitations.

A nonprofit group that tracks threats to free speech in academe and often litigates in support of liberty is the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). On February 7, FIRE released its first-ever survey of yet another illiberal technique for speech suppression: Bias Response Teams (BRTs). They work like this: College administrations actively invite students to report other students or professors whose speech they subjectively deem to be “biased.”


Comments by the snitches, who may remain anonymous, commonly concern political or social speech that is constitutionally protected. For example, a University of Northern Colorado professor found himself in a BRT’s crosshairs in summer 2016 simply for suggesting in a classroom discussion that students consider opposing viewpoints. (He also commended to students a FIRE official’s article on free speech.) The professor received an administrative warning that he could be more “aggressively investigated” if he continued to broach controversial subjects.

In addition to such interventions, transgressors can have reprimands placed in their records or even more explicit punishment, according to Adam Steinbaugh, a FIRE senior program officer. FIRE identified 232 colleges, both public and private, that use this fast-spreading method of stifling speech. Most of these Star Chamber entities have student-conduct administrators on board, but a shocking 42 percent of BRTs include law enforcement personnel. Thus, the idea of “speech police” has broken out beyond the fictional works of George Orwell.

At issue is not hate speech by deranged people deliberately seeking to foment violence. That kind of speech forfeits constitutional protection. At stake is the right to speak out on questions and issues of public importance, even in a provocative manner.

Can government compel universities to honor and protect the First Amendment right of free speech instead of regulating it virtually out of existence? Following the February 1 violent protest at the University of California-Berkeley that shut down an invited speaker, former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, and caused $100,000 of property damage, President Donald Trump tweeted “NO FEDERAL FUNDS?” as a possible penalty for universities disrespecting free speech. But would it really be a good idea to make Washington, DC the omniscient enforcer of free expression on all campuses across the land?

The First Amendment applies to state legislatures and public colleges and universities through the 14th Amendment. Given that reality, a solution consistent with federalism might well lie in each state’s consideration of a “Campus Free Speech Act” (CFSA), such as the one the Goldwater Institute has prepared with the help of eminent scholars.

Some of CFSA’s key points, as outlined by one of its drafters—Stanley Kurtz, of the Ethics and Public Policy Center—include: require public universities to adopt a declaration of the centrality of free speech; nullify all speech codes; declare campus podiums open to all speakers invited by student organizations or faculty members; forbid disruptions of invited speakers and punish disruptors; prevent the designation of limited “free speech zones”; and require university stewards to adhere to policies of institutional neutrality on public-policy controversies of the day (lest students and professors disagreeing with official policy be under heavy pressure to conform).

In a February 1 article for the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, Kurtz strongly criticized the idea of letting those who shout down campus speakers escape unpunished: “Legitimate protest must of course be permitted and protected. Yet interrupting, physically assaulting, or shouting down speakers is tyranny, pure and simple and cannot be tolerated by any community that cherishes and protects free expression.”

Quoting a 1929 opinion by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes that defined genuine freedom as “freedom for the thought that we hate,” Kurtz added this cogent thought: “Far from being license, true freedom is an act of self-control, a refusal to physically extinguish even the speech we abhor. Freedom is a refusal to attack our opponents with everything we’ve got. Campus demonstrators have mistakenly elevated what they think of as sensitivity and civility over the principle of free expression. Yet the truth is, freedom of speech itself is the ultimate act of civility.”

Legislatures taking this proposed measure under consideration might well seek to improve upon it or develop their own approaches. Private universities would not be subject to state controls; however, their trustees could draw many ideas for application to their campuses, such as retooling freshman orientation to ensure students know from the outset that the free and respectful exchange of competing ideas will be central to their learning experience.

[Originally Published in Townhall]