Last fall, student protests at the University of Missouri and Yale University thrust several different serious issues in higher education into public consciousness. Among this attention came a conversation about a student’s right to free speech.
Confrontations during some of these protests demonstrated that some students view free expression as a barrier to their goals, but the history of campus protest shows that this view is ultimately counterproductive.
It’s important to outline that free speech for students in a university setting refers to two separate concepts. First Amendment rights prevent the government from discriminating against speech. Student academic freedom, on the other hand, is a moral principle which schools incorporate into their policies and procedures.
At Temple, which state law defines as an “instrument” of government, students have both.
First Amendment constitutional rights and academic freedom for students are not mere abstractions. Instead, both were first recognized as a result of student protests. Participants in the free speech movement at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1960s were diverse enough to include the College Republicans, but most wanted to exercise their free speech rights to advocate for civil rights and anti-war causes.
Ari Cohn, an attorney for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education—a non-partisan student civil liberties organization—described these largely progressive protesters as “the spark for all of the student activism in the 1960s,” including later fights over free speech.
An important statement of the student academic freedom principle is the “Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students,” first issued in June 1967 and endorsed by organizations like the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Many universities, like Temple, incorporate parts of this document into their policies.
The “Joint Statement” was also prompted by progressive student protest in the past, Cohn said, specifying that it was issued shortly after the heyday of the free speech movement at Berkeley in the mid-1960s.
Christopher Harper, a professor in the journalism department who teaches communication law, thinks Healy v. James, decided in 1972, was the first Supreme Court case to specifically apply First Amendment guarantees to college students.
Harper said the Healy case, which concerned Students for a Democratic Society, an anti-war organization, “is important because it says that a university cannot restrict an organization it disagrees with.”
After administrators at a public Connecticut university attempted to ban SDS from setting up a chapter, the Supreme Court ruled that “the university is supposed to be a place where people learn about free speech … it’s a decision that’s neither conservative nor liberal,” but protects all students, Harper said.
In some of the instances we’ve seen today, student protesters demanded administrators scale back these same protections and enact prohibitions against speech causing offense or other harm to feelings. In doing so, they threaten their own movements.
If our universities are systematically racist, sexist and otherwise oppressive, why wouldn’t prohibitions against hurtful speech be turned against progressives themselves?
After all, according to student protesters, some students of privilege often feel discomfort by discussions of serious issues ranging from police brutality to the occupation of Palestine.
If our universities adopt bans on speech that is perceived as disrespectful, what stops it from being enforced through a campus disciplinary procedure?
When offensiveness is the only criteria, administrators have unlimited discretion to silence whatever speech they dislike. Often, that will be progressive speech.
Demonstrators of previous generations fought for free speech protection because they realized restrictions on speech would eventually be used to squelch the controversial ideas they advocated. Today’s student protesters may find some speech upsetting, but by trying to ban that speech, they give administrators the tools to silence their own voices.
Austin Nolen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.