Free Speech and College Campuses: A Conservative Dialogue
In 1787, the United States successfully ratified the Constitution of the United States. With it came not only a new government, one that would be governed by civil servants rather than divinely inspired kings, but also one of the first government endorsed enumerations of natural rights. In some cases, these have been phrased as ‘self-evident’ truths, as they were in the Declaration of Independence. In other cases, these natural rights were codified, as is seen in one of the most important facets of the United States Constitution: The Bill of Rights. Here, in 1787, the founders enumerated ten amendments to the Constitution which sought to protect the people from an abusive government. The first of these amendments reads as follows:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”
With this amendment came a clear signal to the future legislators, judges, and leaders of the United States government: it is oppressive and tyrannical to silence citizens within a sovereign country. This rule applies, legally, to the United States congress: congress shall make no law… that phrase establishes that the government has no right to abridge the speech of others by means of codified law. At the center of that amendment, however, is the spirit of why it was written. The spirit behind the First Amendment was to establish a system where people were free to express, innovate, create, and debate their ideas without fear of government persecution. It’s a goal that we strive to fulfill each day. While we continue to work for a better society, we keep this and other ideals found in the Constitution close to heart, and use them as a moral compass to affect positive change.
At this juncture an important question must be addressed and thoroughly answered: why have free speech? If people possess the physical capacity and faculties to speak their minds in the first place, why do we revere it so much? Simply put: there would be no United States, nor would there be any such quality of life, without the ability to speak freely and connect with other humans. Both in the most rudimentary facets of science and in the grandest elements of social theories, humans see growth through engagement with one another. We build great structures, create positive connections with friends, family, and strangers, we provide more resources every day to more and more people, and we do these things for the well-being of society. This idea isn’t new: it existed even centuries before the founding of the United States, with scholars like Plato and Aristotle creating schools to teach the fundamentals of arithmetic, language, and governing principles. These ‘academies’ took root and inspired future generations to act upon the achievements and strides made by their ancestors. The Renaissance, another child of free expression and the exchange of ideas, gave birth to artists and sculptors, economists and great scientists. Flash forward to the 21st century and it’s indescribable to see how far we have come. We carry around mega computers in our pockets, we reached the stars and touched the surface of the moon (and maybe we’ll get to Mars within a decade or so), we’ve fought and cured deadly diseases, and we’ve drastically improved people’s quality of life around the world. We’ve done all of this on the back of free speech and the proper, well-functioning flow of ideas.
This does not mean that having the freedom of expression does not lead to the arrival of unfavorable opinions or ideas. To the contrary, we have faced some of the worst parts of humanity over the past few centuries. The rise of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes in Europe had to be recognized to be overcome. Discrimination, based on the color of people’s skin or the chromosomes people were born with, still exists today. We do not fight these injustices by shutting people up about them – that’s not how any fight is won. It takes honest reflection, discussion, and sometimes difficult conversations, to overcome the worst parts of our humanity. In rare, but sometimes necessary, cases these dark centers of humanity can only be subdued with force. From the waters of the English Channel, to the jungles of Southeast Asia, Americans and others have fought across the world for the central tenets of, what we consider, positive and free society. We stood against those who would have rather seen the entirety of certain ethnic groups and religions destroyed, brutally. None of these fights would have been won, nor threats in the world overcome, without the beneficial elements of free speech guiding the world in the right direction.
Part of the reason that free speech stands as the bedrock of developed societies is that free speech truly does act as a moral compass. Not only would we not see innovation at rates that we see them today, but people also would never be held accountable without free speech. A world where people speak freely is also a world where people are free to hold others accountable for immoral, unjust ideas. This is a valuable practice, worth protecting at all costs. Many attribute this task, first and foremost, to the world’s universities: bastions of learning and free expression. Students who arrive on campuses, from Harvard to Berkeley to my current home at Rhodes College, should feel both empowered and curious enough to explore their existing convictions, debate the issues of our time, and hopefully leave with new insights that they can take with them to change the world.
It would seem unusual for people to even question this as the role of universities. Despite this, American universities especially have come under fire over the past decade for what a good section of the populous would call ‘suppression’ of free speech. Many conservatives take the side that universities are suppressing the free exchange of certain viewpoints, while liberals tend to disagree, or say that those viewpoints are ones that should not be represented on campuses across the nation. Overall, this debate has led to a divide in opinion on the value of seeking of a college education. According to studies done by Pew Research center, while many graduates on both sides of the aisle agree that college is an important gateway to future employment opportunities, within the past two years the number of conservatives who believe that colleges have a negative effect on the nation has risen by over 20%. Pew estimates that around 58% of conservatives believe this to be true, and in large part I would argue because of free speech issues on campuses.
Before opining on the situation, aside from what will seem like an obvious stance to take on the issue as a conservative, several examples of this debate come to mind. During my freshman year, generally conservative speakers were met with protest and violence at notable campuses in Berkeley, California, New York, and Vermont. The incident at Vermont drew considerable attention, and even an administration sponsored academic discussion about the merits of free speech at Rhodes. At Middlebury, Dr. Charles Murray from the American Enterprise Institute was invited to speak by their college’s local AEI chapter. He and his staff left that day after being assaulted by students and spectators who came to protest his speaking at the university. Students and staff protesting the event alleged that the speaker carried racist views, and as such should not have been given a place to speak on campus. As of May 10th, over a dozen students were placed on probation for over one full academic years’ time for violating the “demonstrations and protest” guidelines at Middlebury. This event has become a beacon and a discussion point for many college conservatives, and only adds to the growing pile of evidence of conservatives being silenced on college campuses due to their beliefs.
Unsurprisingly, coming from a conservative stance myself I find this event to be alarming. That being said, I refuse to lecture. Rather, I intend to make one observation as to how colleges arrived here, and briefly posit a hope for how the future of discourse can look at American universities. First and foremost, there seems to be a conflict of legitimate concerns at stake when discussing the issues at Middlebury, Berkeley, and in New York: safety versus free speech. I say legitimate not to suggest that the conflict is legitimate, which I will elaborate on later, but rather to argue that both keeping students and speakers safe and preserving the methods of speaking freely are both legitimate endeavors that should be revered on campuses.
First, it is important to acknowledge the reality that the debate between free speech and safety, one that began in the 1960’s, has arisen once again on college campuses across the nation. These two conceptualized topics are posed as polarized issues, but only because a certain segment of the student population has acted in ways that put people’s well-being at risk, just like what happened at Middlebury. Rather than listening to ideas and then discussing why people might think those ideas are wrong, people resorted to disallowing the speaker from sharing at all, and almost put them all in the hospital. In fact, one of Murray’s escorts at Middlebury was a professor who had also worked for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential campaign who was indeed hospitalized for head injuries. In Berkeley’s case, the campus suffered thousands of dollars in damages, and surely people were hurt mentally, if not physically, due to the protestors actions. And second, it is crucial to promote the idea that these issues should not be polarized. Fighting for freedom of speech should not be equivalent with fighting against safety on campus. People should be able to speak their minds freely, and if they have an idea that even some see as immoral or detestable, they should be dissuaded from their beliefs by argumentation and debate. Simultaneously, we should strive to keep people safe. Especially at universities, where students are separated from their families and sent to learn and make their futures brighter. The only way to ensure that both of these issues are at the forefront is to confront reality: it’s time for people to wake up, and realize that adults do not “fight” bad ideas with violence. It is neither acceptable, nor should it be tolerable, to have buildings destroyed and people injured just because a college group invited Milo Yiannopoulos, Gavin McInnes or Ben Shapiro to speak. If you can’t fight the ideas with logic, learn more and fight harder – but not with your fists or weapons.
It is my hope that if more and more people can accept this point of view, we can return to a time in which college campuses were highly regarded by everyone, on every side of the ideological aisle, as centers of free thought and expression. On the contrary, if students continue to be violent and aggressive in reaction to what are mostly conservative ideas being brought on campus, we not only risk unsafe communities but also a further polarization of the American democracy we enjoy living in today.
William "Alex" Schramkowski is a second year student at Rhodes College, in Memphis, Tennessee, where he serves as the President of the Rhodes College Republicans. He is a Hamilton-Madison Fellow of The Campus Conservative.