Earlier this month, a professor at California State University, Fresno, berated the school’s Students for Life group, going so far as to scrub out chalk messages that were part of the club’s university-approved pro-life display. Fresno State students also tried to efface the display, and the professor insisted that free speech was only permitted in the “free speech” zone, which had in fact been eliminated by the school’s administration two years earlier.
Such incidents occur so frequently on college campuses these days that it’s easy for them to become white noise. When groups host conservative events on campus, they are most often greeted by protests, some of which have grown violent in recent months — like the debacles greeting Charles Murray and Ann Coulter at Middlebury College and UC–Berkeley respectively. And frequently, the colleges and universities involved acquiesce to student requests to shut down certain events with which they disagree. While groups such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the Alliance Defending Freedom have long track records of legally (and successfully) protecting students’ rights on campus, there has been little in the way of nationally coordinated free-speech movements bubbling up from students who have had enough of being shut down.
That changed just a few weeks ago, when 22 college students met at the University of Chicago, traveling from across the country, including from schools such as New York University, the University of Michigan, Princeton University, and Chicago’s own DePaul University and University of Chicago. At the event, students offered presentations about the state of free speech on their campuses.
One student, Michael Hout, traveled to the weekend-long conference from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is a junior. After being involved in Democratic politics in his home state of Georgia, Hout sat on the national council of College Democrats and served as the group’s chartering director, in charge of founding new chapters on campuses.
But after volunteering extensively in these capacities, he began to realize how strong his party’s tendency to smother free speech truly was, and he eventually decided to leave the Democrats and become a registered independent, believing that he could do more to reform the party from the outside than from within. Today, he describes himself as a classical liberal.
Fed up with the lack of respect for free speech on their campuses, Hout and his fellow 21 conference attendees drafted a statement of principles, in which they say that they are “united in our shared conviction that free expression is critical to our society, in spite of our differing backgrounds, perspectives, and ideologies.”
Emboldened by the gathering, they formed a new, wholly student-run organization — Students for Free Expression — through which they hope to foster campus atmospheres that permit and even celebrate free speech. So far, their statement has garnered nearly 1000 signatures, and it remains open for anyone to sign.
“We want to operate as the counterbalance on campuses, so that if there’s an issue, we’re on the ground,” Hout tells National Review in an interview. Though the exact contours of the group have yet to be set in stone, he imagines there will be some sort of education component to explain the value of free expression to fellow students, coupled with hosting events with FIRE speakers.
“We’re not looking to create another group to sponsor Milo [Yiannopoulos] or Ann Coulter. That’s not what this group is going to be,” he adds. “Not that there’s anything wrong with inviting those speakers. But we want to be a more modest group to be a watchdog for free-speech rights, even at private universities, where students still have natural rights and should be aware of them.”