College Students Must Demand Free Speech – Again

©2014 Kenneth N. Margolin

When I went to college, 1966 – 1970, American campuses were focal points for protests against a variety of government policies and societal conditions. Student activists railed against the Vietnam war, decried racism, and demanded women’s rights. Speech – verbal, written, and symbolic – was the tool that “children of the sixties” on college campuses were certain would change the world. From profane anti-war chants (“1, 2, 3, 4, we don’t want your fucking war") to drug-celebrating slogans (“drop acid, not war") to bra burnings and Black Panther posters showing angry young men raising rifles over their head, student speech was provocative. The intent was to offend whoever disagreed with the message and to gain the attention of the apathetic or undecided.

In 1964, left-leaning students at the University of California at Berkeley, protested university limits on student political activities on campus, by starting what became known as the “Free Speech Movement.” Students challenged police and college administrators, were arrested, held mass sit-ins, even rioted, all in the name of free speech. They refused to be silenced by elders who they regarded as part of the “establishment” they wished to change. Agree or disagree with the stances or tactics of the college activists of the 60s – had they established college campuses as centers of intellectual ferment where no one need fear speaking their mind, no matter how unpopular their message, they would have advanced the cause of freedom for every new generation of future American leaders studying at colleges and universities.

If the activists of the 1960s truly wanted free speech for all on college campuses, they failed. Today, a depressing number of college administrators and college students protest free speech. They demand that speakers who disagree with their views be silenced if their speech provokes or offends. In hindsight, we shouldn't be surprised that what “Movement" activists wanted was not free speech for all, but, to quote the title of Nat Hentoff's wonderful book, "free speech for me – but not for thee.” Hints that 1960s radical students' demands for freedom of speech were not really about free speech for everyone, were present all along. The rhetoric of the Free Speech Movement was language of social, cultural and political activism. The great protector of free speech in America, the First Amendment, never captured the imagination of the members of the Free Speech Movement and the many university-based protest movements that flowed from it. The First Amendment is not for faint of heart. When free speech is respected on college campuses, students will inevitably be subjected to speech they consider ugly, shocking, offensive – speech that will rouse them from intellectual slumber and make them think, perhaps react. I'd have thought that such mental stimulation was a major point of a college education. College administrators and many students, do not seem to agree.

In a pronouncement, the astonishing irony of which, he seemed not to understand, the current Chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, Nicholas Dirk, declared on the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, that "we can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so, and this in turn requires that people treat each other with civility." Dirk, on a First Amendment-abnegating roll, went further. "Insofar as we wish to honor the ideal of free speech," he wrote, "we should do so by exercising it graciously." So much for Salman Rushdie, threatened with death by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, for writing a book. Rushdie, apparently unaware of the need for civility, writes: "What is freedom of expression? Without freedom to offend, it ceases to exist." No modern day Malcolm X dare speak on today's college campuses: "We want no part of integration with this wicked race of devils" (the devils being whites) – hardly a civil or gracious sentiment. Ayaan Hirsi Ali better steer clear of Berkeley, or Brandeis, where its President canceled an honorary degree ceremony for her when he "discovered" that she made uncivil quotes about Islam: "Wishful thinking about the peaceful tolerance of Islam cannot interpret away this reality: hands are still cut off, women still stoned and enslaved, just as the Prophet Muhammad decided centuries ago”(from her book, Infidel).

Chancellor Dirk heads a public university, subject to the United States Constitution. Were his sentiments unusual, we might dismiss his profound misunderstanding of the First Amendment to ignorance, and suggest that the Chancellor go back to school. Unfortunately, Dirk expressed a view of speech that prevails in much of academia – that speech should be tame, bland, and not too unpopular. Those who hold such a timid and controlling view of speech are entitled to their opinions. What they are not entitled to, however, is to attempt enforcement of their desire for "civil," "gracious," "nice" speech by creating codes of conduct that prohibit speech that is deemed discriminatory or offensive. Ample laws exist to protect against the use of speech to threaten or harass an individual; the First Amendment does not protect threats or harassment. It does protect speech that angers or offends – precisely the type of speech that needs protection.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, "FIRE," reports that nearly 60% of speech codes at public universities are blatantly unconstitutional. These codes and the administrators who enforce them, seek to protect students from hearing words or arguments that offend them. How, one must wonder, can a college student speak provocatively on subjects such as immigration, abortion, gay marriage, Israel-Palestine, gender issues, religion, Islamic terrorism – topics that incite powerful emotions – without offending someone? They can't. Thus, the next generation of Malcolm Xs, Winston Churchills, Salman Rushdies, Ayaan Hirsi Alis, Lenny Bruces, if they are studying on college campuses, must quell their passion and temper their rhetoric, lest they offend, and be charged with violating a conduct code provision demanding "respect" or "civility" in all discourse on campus.

What should a college student do if he or she is subjected to actual or threatened disciplinary proceedings because they spoke provocatively about a sensitive issue? They should stand their ground. They should fight the university censors, expose them in the media, and if necessary, sue them. A college student who fights for free speech will be joining an American tradition as old and as great as the Republic. No student need fight for their freedom of speech alone. They should find counsel who will represent them without charge or inexpensively, and with their counsel, let their college administrators know that they will not be silenced. All students should demand the freedom to express themselves, if the spirit moves them, or a cause requires it, imaginatively, sarcastically, uncivilly and offensively. The offended can chastise them, disagree, and point out the fallacy or shallowness of their opponents' rhetoric. None, however, especially college officials who are bound by the First Amendment, should arrogate to themselves the power to censor.