In our age of hyper–political correctness, America’s colleges and universities are increasingly committing themselves to illiberal policies that clash directly with the freedoms of speech and expression guaranteed by the First Amendment. Representative Phil Roe (R., Tenn.) of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce hopes to do something about this. Roe recently introduced a resolution expressing the House’s sentiment against such policies and in favor of “protecting freedom of speech, thought, and expression at institutions of higher education.”
Roe’s resolution draws on several recent incidents that have illustrated the harms caused by public universities’ choosing to impinge on the Constitution. The resolution cites, among others, institutions such as Blinn College in Texas and Pierce College in Los Angeles, both of which were sued for restricting students’ speech to confined free-speech “zones” that made up a negligible fraction of the campus’s size — 0.003 percent, in the latter case. It also points to a recent episode at Middlebury College in Vermont, where “protesters” violently prevented an invited speaker from delivering his address.
As the resolution notes, these cases not only are distasteful but in some instances feature illegal conduct. Roe cites Supreme Court precedent, along with briefs from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and contends that Congress has a role to play in ensuring that the First Amendment is respected by “public college and university campuses,” that institutions of higher education remain “marketplaces of ideas,” and that speech zones and prohibitive codes are seen for what they are: government censorship. Roe, who considers his resolution a “first step,” may ultimately have his eyes on strengthening the Higher Education Act of 1965, which was reauthorized in 2008.
Whatever his eventual aim, the measure is both welcome and timely. At Harvard, I have experienced attempts at speech restriction myself. In a class I took recently, I was encouraged not to use the word “welfare” and to refer instead to “social-security programs or measures” because welfare had a “negative tone” (although, as someone whose family has benefited from these “programs,” I hardly agree). Likewise, I’ve been told that I should say “Latinx” as opposed to “Latino” (although I grew up saying and hearing the latter in my hometown, Brentwood, N.Y., which is almost 70 percent Hispanic). I’ve been told that calling someone “Asian” or “Hispanic” is “offensive,” although the former merely refers to the continent in which a person— including me, being of Indian descent — may originate. Needless to say, such speech restriction has plagued numerous campuses across the nation and is rightfully coming into the national spotlight.
It is not an overstatement to say that our future depends on the restoration of free inquiry. When speech is limited, if not wholly prohibited, our culture becomes homogeneous, and diversity in both thought and knowledge soon ceases to exist. As a result, our universities and legislatures alike are rendered purposeless. In theory, college campuses are arenas where polemical discourse takes place and controversial ideas are introduced, tested, and bolstered or left to flounder. Ostensibly, debates and elections are held to educate the public on the many sides of our socioeconomic and political arguments. If instead we are merely lining people up to nod along to the conventional wisdom, we may as well give up.
None of this is to defend obscene or threatening speech. In Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), the Supreme Court prohibited the protection of speech that was liable to incite violence or “imminent lawless action.” Likewise, in Miller v. California (1973), the Court defined obscenity and discontinued its protection, which had been maintained under appeals to the First Amendment. Harvard recently revoked the acceptances of at least ten students following their online distribution of obscene material that was meant to be humorous. It was well within its rights to do so.
In elementary school, I learned the Golden Rule: Treat others as you want to be treated. When schools such as Middlebury prevent speakers from exchanging ideas, they undermine a crucial notion of respect and reciprocity. Forbidding peaceful exchanges is not only “inherently at odds with the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment,” as Roe’s resolution states, but counterproductive to the pedagogical mission of institutions of higher education. That it may take Congress to restore this crucial balance is a peculiar thing indeed. That it seems willing to do so is most welcome.