Last weekend, students from all over the United States traveled to Bryn Mawr College for a three-day conference on free speech hosted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. I had the absolute pleasure of participating alongside a large contingent of fellow SFL leaders and impassioned students in the liberty network. From a literary analysis of modern university speech codes to a lecture by Dr. Harvey Silvergate and workshops on reforming our own campuses for freer expression, the experience got everyone thinking about one of most fundamental freedoms in the world.
As I reflect, I think that we can never impress upon ourselves enough the deep-seated importance of free speech in the life of the academy and ultimately, of society itself. Abuses of students’ rights to freely express themselves are not mere nuisances in the speech codes found in our universities. They are, in the deepest sense, an insult to human intelligence and advancement. The purpose of a university is to provide a forum for the free exchange of ideas. Some ideas can be dangerous, but nothing is more dangerous than their inhibition. No administration or bureaucracy on earth can determine how to protect you from the precarious attitudes of others. After all, one day you might feel safe from someone’s incendiary speech, but the next day you yourself may be deemed the dangerous one. Certainly, I cannot honestly paint our world in purely gray Orwellian colors, but dystopia is sometimes not too far from reality when thought reform weaves itself into informal prohibitions on our right to speak, and ultimately to seek truth and strike down falsehood. It happens to absurd degrees in many of our universities – be it the uncomfortably vague sexual harassment policy or the tucked away rules on rude jokes or emotional distress. You have to be nice, they say. You cannot corrupt the campus morals. You should be ashamed for holding certain views.
That these rules appear in our university codes is a travesty and an insult to what makes us productive students and human beings. To university administrations, I say – let us insult and be insulted, let us have our feelings hurt, let us laugh, let us be complete idiots, let us write outrageous columns, let our friends and peers hold our feet to the fire when we make claims. We are students; we cannot be forced into kindness or pressured to think by prescription. That is not how we exchange ideas. That is not an academy, but a playground run by child-like tyrants who are scared of something. No, let’s stop this nonsense. Administrators: Let us think. We’re strong enough to be human and to live in liberty.
Check out www.thefire.org to learn more about speech codes, find support for your own case on campus, and learn how to turn your university into a free speech friendly environment!