The Importance of Free Speech in Academia

An essay I wrote for a contest a month ago…

The right to free speech is almost universally accepted as a basic, essential right of man. From the ancient Greek philosophy that the right to free speech is critical to a free society, to today’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizing freedom of expression as a right of every human being, the right to free speech has been acknowledged by almost every culture of every era. Besides a few notable exceptions, freedom of speech is protected, at least in name, by every country around the world.

Despite cultural, social and religious differences, free speech is almost universally recognized as a basic, inherent right of every human being, and is a crucial part of many aspects of our society today. Alexander Meiklejohn, former dean of Brown University and member of the National Committee of the ACLU, argued that democracy and freedom of speech are inseparable. He stated that democracy will not be true to its essential ideal if those who are in power are able to manipulate the masses by stifling freedom of expression. The English author, poet, and politician, John Milton, went further, saying that mankind as a whole can only find truth when we are allowed freedom of expression.

Clearly, freedom of speech is and always has been a basic, fundamental right of mankind. Even a rudimentary knowledge of world history demonstrates that the primary and most effective means of controlling large groups of people is through the suppression of free speech. Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia are two of the most familiar historical examples of people being controlled by governments that denied them the right to express their opinions. Joseph Stalin recognized the importance of freedom of ideas when he said, “Ideas are far more powerful than guns. We don’t allow our enemies to have guns, why should we allow them to have ideas?”

The battle for free speech is not confined to history books, however. There is battle raging today, not through bloody revolutions and violent confrontations, but in the calm and systematic suppression of free speech and free thought. This battle is not taking place in some far off country under a tyrannical dictator, but here, in our own country, where we are most vulnerable. It is not being fought in the halls of Congress, but on the campuses of universities throughout America.

Most Americans believe that we live in a free country, founded on the principles of liberty. In some areas, this is still true. But the average American would be shocked to discover that every day thousands of Americans are denied the right to free speech, not by the government, but by educational institutions all across the country. This discovery becomes even more shocking when we realize that the victims of this struggle are students, who are still in the process of forming their basic ideas and philosophies about the world, and that these rights are being taken by the very people who are supposed to be helping them form these ideas.

The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, recognized the great importance and influence of education when he said, “All who have meditated on the art of governing mankind have been convinced that the fate of empires depends on the education of youth.” Yet the very foundations of education are being undermined in college campuses all across America. Consider, for example, the mandatory year-long orientation program at the University of Delaware. In this program, students were instructed not only in what not to say, but what not to believe about a variety of social and moral issues. Standing alongside the orientation program as the enforcer of these policies was the university’s list of procedures for dealing with emergencies, which classified “oppressive” speech (any expression that is even perceived as being racist, sexist, anti-Semitic or homophobic) as an emergency warranting immediate notification of the staff, day or night. This policy declared so-called oppressive speech equal to a fire or rape in importance, and superseding in importance a physical fight. (Physical fights could be reported the next day.) No one in their right mind would say that words perceived as oppressive speech warranted such attention. The policy-makers at the University of Delaware were probably not acting out of concern for the safety and well-being of the students, but rather to make an ideological power-grab, forcing the students to believe and live by the personal moral and ethical beliefs of the administration. And this was not an isolated case. Blatantly unconstitutional speech codes and other oppressive limitations on free speech plague educational institutions all across America. This kind of mind control and censorship in the educational system can be devastating to society.

Higher education is supposed to provide an opportunity for students to learn how to think for themselves, develop their own opinions, and critically analyze the beliefs and ideas they encounter in life. Abraham Lincoln recognized the importance of the formative years of one’s education when he said, “The philosophy of the classroom today is the philosophy of the Government tomorrow.” Rather than promote critical, logical thinking, our institutions of higher learning are actively discouraging it, through unconstitutional policies and speech codes. This kind of coercion has multiple negative effects; not only does it force the students to accept the personal (and possibly wrong) beliefs of the current administration, but it also teaches students that it is wrong to question, challenge, and think for oneself. This systematic poisoning of the inherent human desire to challenge and question what we are told to believe has broad-spread catastrophic effects which can be difficult to comprehend.

When people are taught not to think for themselves, the very foundations on which democracy stands are undermined. Democracy relies on the common citizen to keep the government accountable. But when the people have been trained to mindlessly accept whatever they are told, the accountability system put in place by our founding fathers is ruined. Further, these individuals become susceptible to brain washing by anyone with a political or ideological agenda. When people accept what they are told without thinking, the door is open for dictators to come into power.

Furthermore, the consequences of such violations of the right to freedom of expression are not limited to politics. Most, if not all, of humanity’s greatest political, social, or scientific advances have been the result of men and women who were willing to challenge the accepted opinion and strive for something better. If the young people of our society are taught that it is wrong to disagree with those who are in authority, a generation of breakthroughs and discoveries will be sacrificed.

Fortunately, as serious as this problem is, it is fixable. While history speaks out about the importance of freedom of expression, it also presents a solution. Despite the monumental consequences of the suppression of free thought and individual expression, all that is necessary to counter-act these negative effects is a handful of committed, dedicated individuals who are willing to stand against the established authorities. The price for such opposition may be high, but when weighed against the cost of not standing up for our rights, there is no alternative.