Protecting Freedom of Speech Where It Matters Most, on the College Campus

Students on the campus of Harvard University in 2009 (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
A new bill before the Senate would ensure First Amendment rights in our institutions of higher learning.

The 45 words of the First Amendment fit well within Twitter’s 280-character limit. Those words are what make the very concept of Twitter possible in the first place. And although I may disapprove of a person’s tweet, I will defend to the death his right to tweet it.

Our nation’s students are at the forefront of a technological revolution that is expanding our ability to assert our First Amendment rights. I am deeply concerned, however, that college administrators are not following the same trend. When faced with opinions contrary to their own, some of the most esteemed institutions of higher learning have sought to dampen student expression.

To make matters worse, a conspicuous bias against conservative views exists in higher education. College students from across the nation have testified on this matter before Congress, detailing the difficulties they have encountered in hosting conservative speakers on campus. Zack Wood, a student, testified recently before the Senate Judiciary committee, observing that “in my time at Williams College, I cannot name a single conservative speaker that has been brought to campus by the administration.” Zack’s testimony is a stunning indictment.

College campuses should be a place where students can explore their beliefs, debate conflicting ideas, and find common ground. In the college experience, students should be exposed to a variety of views, some of which they may find uncomfortable or offensive. America’s campuses should reflect a real-world environment where we are free to express our beliefs. We can do this while fostering respect for differing opinions.

There are those who have and will continue to stir up controversy intentionally. The list of people prevented from speaking, however, is not limited to the professional provocateur. In 2014, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice was pressured to withdraw from delivering a commencement speech at Rutgers University owing to protests. Ben Shapiro, who in 2015 was found by the Anti-Defamation League to be the leading target for anti-Semitic hate speech, was prevented from speaking at University of California, Berkley, because of violence. For universities to bow to thugs is shameful. Indeed, to silence speech for fear of reprisal is a cowardly, a surrender of our most basic constitutional rights.

The deterioration of the freedom of speech on college campuses has become so apparent that some states have already begun taking action. My home state of Utah, for example, recently passed legislation to fortify First Amendment rights for students on campus. Students’ speech, however, should not be dependent on the state they reside in.

The nation’s founders understood this principle. The Constitution did not initially include the Bill of Rights. Many state constitutions already included various protections, and many thought that the inclusion of such a bill would be redundant. But the supporters of the Constitution made a promise that the first order of business would be to insert a bill of rights that would protect the freedom of expression. 

Early commitment to free speech has become an integral part of the American psyche, and it remains clear that to limit speech because of the viewpoint it represents is unconstitutional.

This early commitment to free speech has become an integral part of the American psyche. And despite various attempts to undermine free speech in our nation’s highest court, it remains clear that to limit speech because of the viewpoint it represents is unconstitutional. As Americans, we must recognize freedom of speech not only as an issue worthy of our respect and attention but as a constitutional imperative and one of the core principles upon which our nation was founded.

Perhaps the leaders of higher education could learn something from the late Justice Antonin Scalia. When asked by Piers Morgan about freedom of speech, Scalia replied, “I am not king.” He recognized that although he may personally disagree with particular speech, it was not his place, even as a Supreme Court justice, to limit speech because of its viewpoint.

This is not to say that we should allow poisonous ideas to run rampant in our communities. We should never hesitate to stand up to hate. History has shown that hateful ideas can turn into hateful action. When faced with offensive viewpoints, we should not shy away from values we hold as Americans. Although white supremacists and Nazis may have the right to express their retrograde beliefs, we have a moral responsibility to defeat their ideas with better ideas — ideas based on love and inclusion.

What we cannot do is let the voice of a loud and violent minority stifle those ideas that deserve our respect and consideration. We must strike a balance. We must allow those with differing opinions to be heard. In times of dangerous political polarization, we must be open and receptive to debate instead of seeking to shut it down.

That’s why I have introduced legislation to ensure that our colleges and universities remain institutions of free exchange and free expression. Far too often, students of minority viewpoints are left feeling targeted by college administrators who apply one set of rules for those with whom they agree, and another set of rules for those who stand outside the popular point of view. This practice is unacceptable. 

My proposal would require public colleges and universities to provide clear guidance on their efforts to protect free speech and the free exchange of all ideas. Students on campus should know that any regulation of speech remains content-neutral, apolitical, and narrowly tailored. They should be able to trust that their campuses will foster free speech, not stifle it. That’s why I urge my colleagues in Congress to join me in moving this legislation forward. I welcome all constructive contributions from fellow senators, both in committee and on the floor, in order to get this done.  

We have an obligation to our nation’s students to protect their rights under the Constitution. We cannot expect tomorrow’s leaders to uphold the values of free speech if we do not uphold them ourselves. For my part, I intend to use my voice in the United States Senate to speak up for students who feel that their voices are not being heard.


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