Free speech on campus

In the politically charged climate that is higher education, university officials have to balance the maintenance of a constructive learning environment with the protection of First Amendment rights. Attempts to strike this balance are often codified in campus speech and conduct codes. Yet, increasingly, an inappropriate balance is being struck: Despite remonstrations from university administrators that speech codes do not inhibit free speech, implicit and explicit codes that restrain protected expression are alive and well on campuses across the nation.

Campus speech codes, widely adopted in the 1980s and now firmly entrenched on many campuses, have increasingly silenced unpopular or offensive discourse at many higher educational institutions. Even “annoying” speech is now considered harassment on some campuses: A recent Shippensburg University statement defined harassment as “unsolicited, unwanted conduct which annoys, threatens, or alarms a person or group.” Socrates, the gadfly of Athens, who alarmed and annoyed his hometown’s upper crust, apparently would not be allowed to speak out at Shippensburg University.

Some universities are going to great lengths to prevent the uncontrolled confrontation of ideas on campuses. Texas Tech University is one of several institutions that blatantly violates First Amendment rights by confining controversial speech to “free speech areas.”

Most often these policies are rooted in good intentions: crowd control and harassment prevention. However, the problem is that many universities and colleges have defined “harassment” so vaguely that it often includes disquieting or even annoying speech and writing. It is this improper definition of harassment that has led to the ridiculous policies noted above.

Universities are meant to combat ignorance through education – not through speech-code enforcement. While universities and colleges must stamp out true harassment, such as sexual and racial badgering, an unfiltered dialectic of ideas and opinions must be encouraged on university campuses. In a free society our cherished beliefs and viewpoints are often challenged and occasionally castigated. Instead of appealing to authorities to silence thoughts that make us uneasy or simply annoy us, we must hear them out and use our intelligence and patience to argue against ideas we find erroneous or immoral. Only then can we call ourselves truly educated.