‘Washington Examiner’ Makes Free Speech on Campus a 2013 New Year’s Resolution
January 3, 2013
by Joseph Cohn
As the ball dropped at Times Square ushering out 2012 and welcoming in 2013, I made a personal resolution to take off 10 pounds this new year. I thought it was a pretty good resolution. Then I read The Washington Examiner's local editorial on January 2, declaring, "One New Year's resolution we'd like to see in 2013 is a renewed effort to uphold the First Amendment on college campuses." And while I still plan on keeping my personal resolution, it would truly thrill me if more college and university administrators adopted The Washington Examiner's ambitious but completely achievable wish. All it would take is a commitment to student rights and an understanding from public college administrators that uncomfortable, profane, obnoxious, and even hateful speech is almost always protected by the First Amendment-and that students can handle it the same way every other American outside of college does.
The editorial, titled "Muzzling Free Speech on Campus," concludes by explaining that "upholding free-speech rights on campus has an important added benefit. It promotes civil, respectful dialogue in an increasingly diverse public square." And although I agree with most of the Examiner's editorial, civility and diversity are actually among the most common rationales that campus administrators cite for unconstitutional speech codes that stifle free speech.
I don't know if free speech always leads (or even should lead) to civil and respectful dialogue, but I know that by definition, free speech promotes a freer exchange of ideas and critical thinking, which is to everyone's benefit. After all, as FIRE President Greg Lukianoff recently stated during an interview in Inside Higher Ed:
I do not believe that in the absence of speech codes, universities would simply devolve into pits of ignorance in which racist points of views would dominate. Racist ideas are not particularly successful ideas in society, and I do not believe that the attitudes of tolerance and respect for diversity are primarily coming from a top-down direction.
So as this new year starts, I join The Washington Examiner's call for colleges and universities to commit to upholding the First Amendment. I am willing to accept that some of the speech on campus that will result from a world without these speech codes will be messy and even make me uncomfortable. But that seems like a small price to pay for freedom, and it doesn't require me to diet. Seems to me like a win-win situation.