Commentary

Erosion of 1st Amendment Protections Is Taking Toll on Academic Diversity in Higher Ed

By Nicole Neily | September 17, 2019 | 11:05am EDT
(Photo by RODGER BOSCH/AFP/Getty Images)

Two years ago, Princeton University held a Constitution Day lecture entitled “F%*# Free Speech,” which asked students to “rethink academic freedom and academic values.” The speaker asserted that higher education “has never promoted free speech as a central value”— implying that the ivory tower is somehow exempt from the First Amendment freedoms guaranteed to all Americans by our country’s founding principles.

Fortunately, the speaker was wrong: landmark court cases have ruled otherwise, ensuring that students don’t shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech at the schoolhouse gate.

But these days, university culture seems more interested in limiting speech rather than encouraging it. Administrators, professors and sometimes students believe there should be qualifications to the First Amendment. The University of California at Los Angeles published an interview with Douglas Kellner, a professor of education, who, according to a Campus Reform report, said, “I don’t see the First Amendment as absolute.”

Before jumping to Kellner’s defense, consider this: if the powers that be were empowered to choose which words and phrases are acceptable – and which ones aren’t – what might have happened to once-minority opinions of the past (abolitionists, suffragists, and civil rights activists)?

While the Founding Fathers couldn’t have anticipated “emotionally and physically trigger[ing]” on college campuses, they did successfully predict that free speech would be threatened by those seeking power and control. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.”

That slow erosion of First Amendment protections is taking its toll on academic diversity in higher education. A poll conducted by College Pulse on behalf of the College Fix found that in a survey of 1,000 Republican and Republican-leaning college students, nearly three-quarters of them have withheld their political views in class for fear their grades would suffer.

It’s ironic that with the recent push for “safe spaces” on campus, conservative students remain fearful to “speak their truth”— a fear that has been validated by their peers. A Knight Foundation study this year found that over two-thirds of college students believe the climate on their campus prevents people from speaking freely.

Even non-threatening forms of speech – like wearing political gear supporting a candidate or politician – is met with hostility. This summer, a visiting professor at Gonzaga University Law School published an article in the American Bar Association Journal about how he interpreted a student wearing a Make America Great Again (MAGA) hat in his class as possibly “directing a hateful message toward” him personally.

The real threat occurs, however, when dangerous ideas are silenced and forced underground where they don’t have the benefit of being refined and tested against other arguments; where ideas can lose outside perspective and become dangerously singular in focus. Higher education is supposed to be the first line of defense to combat radical ideology by seeking transparency, objectivity, and understanding.

It’s impossible for a university to foster honest discourse in the classroom when mainstream political viewpoints are discouraged and chilled. And how will these young adults learn to coexist with neighbors or colleagues who think differently from them when the window of “acceptable” discourse is so narrow?

Without a measured voice of reason in academia, our public discourse is suffering. Just as our Founding Fathers warned, there are grave consequences when speech— even ugly speech— is silenced. Students, parents, and concerned citizens must push for an even playing field of ideas in the classroom or risk betraying the country’s legacy of free and open thought. 

Nicole Neily is the president of Speech First.

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