Bhargavi GarimellaColleges have long been hailed as a marketplace of ideas: a long-standing forum for intellectualdiscussion in modern society. It is this very characteristic that enables social change and upholds thepillars of a free society. But a prerequisite to intellectual discussion is an equal inclusion of viewpoints.The exclusion of certain viewpoints through censorship hampers this dialogue and in turn, theprogress of human knowledge. Rather than exiling specific opinions, propagating free speechencourages a competition of ideas that is imperative to liberal education.The answer to controversial speech has always been more speech, not less. As Vince Herronwrites in the Southern California Law Review, censoring speech is “as ineffective as fighting a fire byspraying water on the tips of the flame while allowing the house to continue to burn.
” The fire willnever cease to burn. When colleges censor certain viewpoints that are problematic, more harm thangood comes from it. Silencing provoking speech does not address bigotry at the root; rather, it ispushed underground and excluded from a robust and uninhibited political discourse that could haveoccurred.A Gallup survey of college students found that 24 percent of white respondents and 41 percentof African-American respondents believed that colleges and universities should restrict the expressionof “political views that are upsetting or offensive to certain groups.” However, this perspective isinherently problematic and at odds with the purpose of universities because only with freedom ofspeech can these views be challenged and dissected. Only with freedom of speech can such perceivablyoffensive and bigoted political views be dismantled and dissected. Discourse and debate over politicaland moral principles brought this country to where it is today.
Limiting this dangerously stunts theintellectual vitality of universities: if students, speakers, or faculty fear punishment for expressing viewsthat may be unpopular or uncommon, only largely accepted or favorable views will be put forth andvalidated in higher education, defeating the purpose of liberal education.Bhargavi GarimellaMedia outlets have run rampant with stories of overbearing political correctness in collegesand campuses blocking conservative speakers. However, the moral and judicial principles that guidethis country dictate that speakers have the right to speak, even if they present controversial material,and protestors have the right to protest regardless of their motivations. If college campuses only leaveroom for “preferred views,” then social progress, civic engagement, and quality liberal education willfall to the wayside. The oft-idolized marketplace of ideas vanishes if no true discussion occurs. Forinstance, pro-life supporters will want to silence the viewpoints of pro-choice supporters and prochoicesupporters will want to silence the viewpoints of pro-life supporters.
But acting on these wantsis dangerous and unconstitutional. How can any social progress be made when no clash, no challengingof viewpoints, and no broadening of horizons occurs?The fact of the matter remains that students need to be made uncomfortable. In order to learn,grow, and eventually reach the truth, individuals need to be faced with potentially controversial viewsthat are different from theirs. If college campuses remain a place where students are cushioned andcoddled and engage in discourse with only like-minded people, they will never be able to trulyunderstand or defend their values and principles in a way that is necessary in the real world.University speech codes are becoming the one-size-fits-all approach to satisfying the massmedia and the student body. However, notoriously overbroad or vague speech codes––beyondoutright censoring students––cause severe damage to the spirit of education and discourse that lieswithin colleges.
Azhar Majeed of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education explains that thiscauses a “chilling effect” in which students and potential speakers become so fearful of violating thespeech code or offending anyone that they self-censor themselves, preventing crucial forms ofdiscussion and debate from taking place.Professor E. Wayne Ross elucidates that students have played a significant role in definingsocial, cultural and political environments beyond the university context––and this has been possible Bhargavi Garimellabecause of their freedom of speech.
Moreover, university students are considered to be catalysts ofsociopolitical action during the accumulation of social unrest and political tension in society. In fact,the New Left was a widespread political reform movement during the 1960s and 70s that originatedon college campuses and advocated for democracy, civil rights, and university reform, succeeding inchanging mindsets and influencing political actions. With speech codes censoring entire studentbodies, administrators deciding on a case-by-case basis what speech is allowed, and free speech beingconfined to small “zones,” the intellectual vitality and power of university students is repressed. As aresult, the potential for social progress and activism is rapidly diminishing on college campuses. In apolitical climate where civic engagement and social consciousness are needed more than ever before,students––who have proven to be instrumental in activism and social progress––can no longer speakup without the fear of punishment leering over them.This country was founded on principles of liberty and open democracy, exemplified in thefreedom of speech, the freedom of the press, and the right to assemble. Freedom of speech is afundamental American, and human, right.
A university can only fulfill its purpose as a place to educatestudents and broaden the boundaries of human knowledge if freedom of expression is upheld and amarketplace of ideas is maintained; these ideals cannot coexist with censorship or a restriction of thisfundamental right.Free speech is infinitely more valuable than controversy, comfort, or politics. Free speech isworth more than protecting a university’s reputation or keeping political donors satisfied.
Whentradeoffs are being made between free speech and superficial concerns, the free flow of ideas mustprevail because this is how democracy progresses. As George Washington exemplified, “If thefreedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”The frontiers of human knowledge are advanced not through a restriction of rights, but through anopen dialogue and, above all, the freedom to speak.