In grade school, I learned that debate is defined as "a discussion between people in which they express different opinions about something."
Such open discourse was historically encouraged on our college campuses. Universities exemplified intellectual discussion and debate in America. No one voiced their opinions louder than students, professors and administrators. They pushed society’s limits by admitting women and people of color, and by encouraging diversity of thought amongst the college community. Historically, young people flocked to universities to learn more about the world around them, to encounter people from different backgrounds, to expand their minds and to form their own opinions.
Unfortunately, things have changed. Recently on college campuses, our open discourse has been threatened, particularly when discussing politics.
While the current presidential election represents polarizing wings of both the Democratic and Republican parties, we should be able to openly debate their policies and the direction in which they plan to take our country if elected. We should be able to discuss the abuse of power within our government and the consistent violations of our Bill of Rights. We should be able to participate in the free market of ideas. But our students are being silenced.
University campuses are now home to a plethora of speech restrictions. From sidewalk-sized “free-speech zones” to the criminalization of microaggressions, America’s college campuses look and feel a lot more like an authoritarian dictatorship than they do the academic hubs of the modern free world. When rolling an inflated free-speech ball around campus, students at the University of Delaware were halted by campus police for their activities. A Young Americans for Liberty leader at Fairmont State University in West Virginia was confronted by security when he was attempting to speak with other students about the ideas he believes in. A man at Clemson University was barred from praying on campus because he was outside of the free-speech zone. And a student at Blinn College in Texas abolished her campus’ free-speech zone in a lawsuit after administrators demanded she seek special permission to advocate for self-defense.
How have we let this happen in America, the land of the free?
It’s because of what our universities have taught a generation of Americans: If you don’t agree with someone, are uncomfortable with an idea, or don’t find a joke funny, then their speech must be suppressed. Especially if they don’t politically agree with you.
Instead of actually debating ideas that span topics from the conventional to the taboo, a generation of American students don’t engage, they just get enraged. In doing so, many students believe that they have a right to literally shut other people up. This is not only a threat to the First Amendment, but also to American democracy.
In their manifestation, safe spaces and free-speech zones at public universities enable prejudice against unfavorable ideologies. Guised as progressive measures to ensure inclusion, these often unconstitutional policies exclude new and competing ideas, and are antithetical to a free academia. In excluding different ideologies, supposedly progressive campus speech codes do one thing: prevent the progression of ideas. Restrictive campus speech codes are, in fact, regressive.
With over 750 chapters nationwide at Young Americans for Liberty, we are fighting against public universities that stifle free speech. We've launched the national Fight for Free Speech campaign to reform unconstitutional speech codes and abolish these so-called free-speech zones on college campuses. By hosting events such as large free speech balls, YAL chapters across the country are petitioning their campuses to adopt the University of Chicago's principles on freedom of expression—the hallmark of campus speech policies. Our members have geared up with First Amendment organizations to ensure that their free speech rights on campus are protected.
America is a land rooted in the ideas of a free society: the freedom to be who you are, to speak your mind and to innovate. By silencing our students and young people, we have started down a slippery slope. It is up to us to fight back to ensure that our First Amendment rights remain protected—not just on college campuses, but everywhere in America.