The Decline of Free Speech on College Campuses

Thomas Sarsfield, Staff Writer

The concept of free speech has been prominent from the very roots of our nation, with this notion being closely linked to the fundamental characteristics of equality, freedom, and the right to protest, as instilled by the United States government in 1791. Since the ratification of the First Amendment, freedom of speech has always been one of the most important aspects of American society. However, students on college campuses across the United States have begun to protest to stop speakers who are invited to lecture at college campuses.

In recent years, there have been countless fights, riots, and protests, caused by students, with the aim of silencing others with opposing opinions. In November of 2016, conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro, who had been invited to speak at the University of Wisconsin, was interrupted in the middle of his lecture by students who walked to the front of the auditorium and began to shout the words “safety” and “decency” in an attempt to silence him. This is the tip of a large iceberg, with many other speakers having experienced even worse.  In March of 2017, speaker Charles Murray was attacked by students during his speech at Middlebury College after students called him a racist due to a controversial book he co-wrote in 1994. In November last year, Lucian Wintrich, a controversial conservative speaker, was giving a speech at the University of Connecticut when a student ran up to his podium and grabbed his papers from the stand. Wintrich reacted rather boorishly, as he jumped into the crowd to retrieve his papers and tried to grab them back while getting arrested in the process. Speakers were not the only ones targeted. At the University of California-Berkeley, student and Washington Examiner Journalist Max Keating reported seeing a student walk up to another student with a Pro-Ben Shapiro poster, grab it, rip it up, and then throw the student to the ground.

One possible explanation for this un-American behavior is that college students have begun to constitute hate speech as any speech that appears to marginalize a group of oppressed people, whether the speech is factual or not. Nonetheless, even if the statement in question is hate speech, hate speech is free speech whether it is supported or not. Unfortunately, many students disagree. According to a 2017 survey done by the Brookings Institution, 44 percent of all students surveyed felt that hate speech was not free speech. The Brookings Institution also found that 51 percent of students surveyed believed that disrupting speakers whom they disagree with is perfectly fine. No, this is not a speaker spewing hate speech; it is simply a speaker with opposing views. Half of the students believe that censorship is permissible if one does not agree with the message. However, even more shockingly, 19 percent of students surveyed felt that violence is a fair way to prevent a speaker from speaking.

While this information is both surprising and disheartening,  speech restrictions also take away from the college experience. College is about expanding one’s horizons, getting out of comfort zones, and learning the viewpoints of both sides of an argument. However, college students don’t seem to want that anymore. According to a 2016 study by Gallup and Knight Foundation, given the option of choosing between an environment that allows free speech, including hateful commentary, compared to an environment that prohibits certain discourse to induce a positive learning environment, 22 percent of students chose the latter. While in the minority, one-fifth of the students still prefer censorship. College should be a place where students, teachers, and guest speakers can all express their opinions and ideas freely without restraint. College is where young adults go to grow and get their first take on the real world.