The Audacity of Independent Thought
January 31, 2013
This essay won first place in FIRE's 2012 Essay Contest.
By Mark Gimelstein
Before my parents left the Soviet Union in the 1980s, they lived under an oppressive regime where the concept of free speech did not exist. Anyone perceived to be critical of the government was threatened, imprisoned in the gulags, or even detained in psychiatric wards where mental and physical torture occurred. While most people had no idea that a better life was possible outside of the Soviet Union, my parents knew better, and they decided to move to the United States where they knew their basic rights and liberties would be constitutionally guaranteed. Because of what my parents went through, I’ve always been aware of how important and precious the right to free speech is and how easily it can be taken away. As someone who is never afraid to express his views at school, even though they often differ from those of my classmates, I look forward to college because of all of the opportunities it offers to become even more politically informed and engaged. However, our country’s colleges and universities—despite being elite institutions of learning in the freest nation in the world—instead often choose to indoctrinate students, silence independent thought, and enforce political correctness upon the student body. It is clear that these policies contradict the very mission of higher education, whose advancement is inextricably linked to the exercise of free speech.
When students enter institutions of higher education, they have entered a moment in their lives when their political and intellectual curiosity is at a peak. In an environment of learning, students are supposed to be encouraged to explore and make themselves into well-rounded individuals with their own thoughts and beliefs. After leaving behind the restrictive, routine-based world of high school, college students should have the autonomy to make their own decisions in order to make the transition from naïve teenagers into mature adults. As a result, when students like Andre Massena from Binghamton University and Hayden Barnes from Valdosta State University are seen protesting against their professors and universities for social justice, environmentalism, and other issues by putting up posters or flyers and sending emails expressing their concerns, it should be considered a victory for higher education. When incoming freshmen from the University of Delaware express a wide variety of differing beliefs concerning politics, race, sexuality, and other issues of the day, it should be seen as a positive step toward real dialogue and understanding among the student body. When students like Keith John Sampson of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis read books that interest them in order to educate themselves, we should view this as a success for the university.
However, all of these students who engaged in activism or exercised their right to free expression were not celebrated by their universities, but rather condemned and punished. Student activists like Andre Massena and Hayden Barnes were threatened or nearly expelled for having the nerve to express a concern or gripe with a school’s policies. Many colleges have vigorously tried to cleanse the ideologies of their students and make them only believe the views approved by the school. At the University of Delaware, university officials took “diversity training” too far by asking intrusive questions and making their students feel polarized and guilty for having unique personal beliefs. Keith John Sampson, on the other hand, was charged with violating school policy for reading literature that his university deemed politically incorrect and considered hazardous to its students. These are just a few of the many cases in which colleges and universities across the United States grossly violate their students’ rights to speak freely, which are guaranteed by the Constitution and nearly always by the university itself. From free speech zones, which isolate students into a part of campus that is far too small to accommodate for the massive student body, to speech codes, which unreasonably prohibit what students can say, think, or even wear, universities have constantly tried to interfere with and take away their students’ First Amendment rights.
If injustices like these do not stop, what are the benefits of higher education? What is the point of going to an institution in the hopes of pursuing interests and enlightening oneself?
College students, of all people, demonstrate their drive for knowledge, which requires the ability to think freely and ask important, critical questions. Colleges and universities claim the pursuit of knowledge as their goal, yet the attempted censorship of free speech, which has been ongoing for many years, is not compatible with this idea. Higher education as a principle promotes people pursuing their own interests and enlightening themselves with the multitude of resources and the autonomy that colleges and universities provide. Free speech naturally develops when people are allowed to educate and develop their ideologies and discuss them with others. When this liberty is highly censored and taken away, education becomes fundamentally different. Public discourse slowly withers away as the opinions of most students and teachers become exactly the same. Creativity disappears without any individuality, which is completely counterproductive to the overall higher education experience. People are bullied into a corner where political and intellectual diversity ends and the homogenization of “socially acceptable” opinions begins.
It is impossible for higher education to exist as it was originally intended without the guarantee of First Amendment rights to all. Both freedom of speech and higher education are complements to each other—without one, the other fails to survive. The fight to preserve this sacred liberty will be an ongoing battle, but students must persevere to ensure that the freedom of speech is protected in the present and continues to be respected by higher education institutions throughout the United States in the future.