American universities have long been a haven for freedom of expression. Since the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in the 1960s, college campuses have been a safe place for wild ideas to take root, grow and flourish.
However, the tides are changing across the country when it comes to free expression on campus.
For the last few months, the regents of the University of California system have been debating over whether or not to adopt a revised policy defining intolerance. The new policy, which emerged after complaints over pro-Palestine groups, would enforce limits on “unwelcome conduct,” including the broad use of “language reflecting stereotypes or prejudice.”
On the other coast, a recent poll at Yale University revealed over half of its student population favors restricting free speech on campus. While many students expressed a desire for a code against hate speech, even more said professors should be required to warn students before discussing discomforting topics.
The assault on free speech on nationwide campuses has even crept into the presidential race. Retired surgeon Ben Carson, who is competing for the Republican presidential nomination, has said he would use the Department of Education to make sure no “extreme” political views could be expressed by professors.
Backlash against free speech is to be expected, especially because the law applies equally to everyone. This inevitably protects the expression of ideas outside the mainstream: ideas that make us uncomfortable, hurt or angry.
It is particularly important that students be on the forefront of fighting for free speech. As we pursue learning and personal development, it is absolutely crucial we are allowed the freedom to explore and formulate a wide range of ideas. It appears as though some students, from UC to Yale, would rather be protected from others’ opinions than be challenged by them. Such trends are a shame.
We believe that everyone has the fundamental right to express their thoughts, even if those views are dangerous, offensive or hateful. Robust dialogue and intellectual competition — not the silencing of those deemed wrong from the outset — is the only way the best ideas will win out.
Our universities, and the safe environments they provide for expression of all kinds, have long been one of the United States’ crown jewels. If they are to stay that way — and for the sake of ourselves and future generation, they must — we need to fight against even the most subtle attacks of free speech.