How College Campuses Can Revitalize Free Speech and the First Amendment
It is an unfortunate truth that First Amendment rights have become increasingly politicized. Subsequently, there are more misconceptions about the First Amendment and a reluctance around exercising these rights.
Only 30% of college students know that most hate speech is protected under the First Amendment, according to a Knight Foundation survey. And the situation, it appears, is not improving. Heterodox Academy found that the percentage of students who reported they were reluctant to discuss politics went up from 32% in 2019 to 41% in 2020. Misconceptions compounded with reluctance to speak out serve only to deepen political divides and create further confusion about the First Amendment.
The First Amendment only pertains to stopping government censorship. Its main role is to protect citizens from institutional censorship and allow them to debate and find truths for themselves instead of being told by those in power what to believe. Because public universities are extensions of the government and most private schools commit themselves to upholding free speech rights, this intent should carry over to most college campuses.
In theory, preserving First Amendment rights should be a main priority for all students and a touchstone of bipartisan actions.
Contrary to this, the organization I work for, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), sees cases of students calling on their universities to step in and censor other students and to institutionalize what is and is not allowed to be discussed on campus. From student governments denying recognition of controversial groups to student’s calling for speakers of every political background to be disinvited, we have seen it all. While the censorship “direction” may change from case to case, a common theme involves students leaning on their administrations to regulate speech they disfavor rather than embracing opportunities for discourse.
While there should be a larger push among high school educators to teach more about civics so that students do not enter college without a foundational knowledge of their rights (and, in fact, there are many resources to help with this), this does not leave universities off the hook.
To ensure an open and robust campus climate for free expression, incoming students need to understand the importance of exercising their First Amendment rights and respecting the rights of others from day one. Fortunately, there is a venue already in place where this education can occur: first-year student orientations and other first-year experience programming.
By utilizing some time during these programs, schools can get ahead of any future speech-related controversies and make sure their students have the correct understanding of their rights and tools for expressing themselves within the bounds of the First Amendment.
FIRE saw requests for assistance from students and faculty alleging rights violations increase from 654 in 2018 to 1,001 in 2020, and in 2020 our output of letters in support of faculty and students more than doubled from 2019. We know firsthand that this kind of education is desperately needed and will help to mitigate this new wave of censorship.
In fact, the legislatures of Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia already require some amount of free speech education to be presented to new students. These requirements span from explicitly requiring first-year student orientations to directly address free expression (like in North Carolina) to only requiring students be given a copy of the school’s policies (like in Texas).
Any such programming should have a strong emphasis not only on clearly communicating what is and is not protected under the First Amendment, but why the First Amendment is a tool for those on all parts of the political spectrum and programming should give students tools for expressing themselves.
While the First Amendment and the law should be taught in this venue, browbeating students with facts only goes so far. Universities should offer solutions students can utilize instead of asking their administrations to censor uncomfortable ideas. New students are typically much more eager to participate in campus culture, so offering them ways to use their voices — such as writing op-eds, holding counter-protests, hosting round table discussions, and forming their own student groups — during orientation programming is the perfect way to help channel their excited energy.
Additionally, while discussions about censorship on campus are often framed as “Conservatives vs. Liberals,” this framing does not capture the full picture of censorship on campus, and frankly, is not particularly helpful to students. Universities should be mindful of this when discussing free speech. The First Amendment is important to all political identities (even apolitical students), and schools should look to highlight instances of students coming together through bipartisan coalitions for common goals.
For example, in FIRE’s orientation materials (which were developed in partnership with New York University’s First Amendment Watch), one story we chose to highlight is a case from the University of Rhode Island in which the university’s student senate refused to fund “political” or “religious” student groups because they were under the false impression that funding them would endanger the student senate’s tax-exempt status. This policy was abandoned only when five separate student groups who had been denied funding, including the campus chapters of the College Republicans and College Democrats, came together to challenge the discriminatory funding methods. These kinds of examples show how First Amendment rights allow students on all sides to stand up to those in power and prove that standing in solidarity with those you vehemently disagree with can be a powerful tool.
Given that most universities had to scramble to operate their orientations and first-year experience programming remotely or semi-remotely last year and given the hopeful atmosphere around being able to return to greater normalcy next fall, this is the perfect time to revisit these programs. Reinventing orientation to teach students to exercise their rights and foster a campus culture that values diversity of thought will help students not only get the most out of their college experience but create empowered citizens.
This article is part of Divided We Fall’s “Constitutional Questions” series, covering a range of political topics fundamental to the U.S. Constitution and democratic institutions. Through this series, we ask constitutional scholars, journalists, elected officials, and activists to discuss how these ideals are – and are not – implemented today. If you liked this piece, you can read more like it here.