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Student censorship and academic growth: A paradox in higher education

Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression

By Hadi Kateb. This essay won third place in the 2014 Free Speech Essay Contest.

“If the freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” Although George Washington made this historic remark hundreds of years ago, it continues to have relevance to modern society. Institutions of higher education are pertinent to the growth and success of any nation—a limitation of such institutions would also lead to a limitation on the development of a nation. In the United States today, many colleges and universities have tried to try to inhibit student speech, and with it, their ability to discuss, learn, and grow. Incidences at the University of Cincinnati and Valdosta State University illustrate that the freedom of speech is integral for the development and growth of college and university students, and with them, the entire educational process as a whole.

At the University of Cincinnati, students’ freedom of speech—and consequently their educational experience—was violated in many different ways by university regulation. In one example, the University limited the freedom of speech to small areas known as “Free Speech Zones.” Such isolated areas dedicated to “free speech” were far away from normal student activity and were therefore rendered essentially invisible from the student population. The students at the University were not even allowed to pass out flyers beyond the Free Speech Zone—if they did, the administrators threatened to call the police. Ironically, the head of the university deemed the students’ acts of spreading pamphlets and other information as an interruption to the school’s educational process. Rather, the University administration’s unlawful impediment to the freedom of the students was the real obstacle to the student’s education. Consequently, the students turned to FIRE, and together they successfully sued the University. Although the students did not think that it would be possible to overturn their University’s regulations, the judge deemed the Free Speech Zones unconstitutional. The students won their right to free speech and with it their right to a productive and open educational experience.

In colleges and universities, freedom of speech is the core of the educational system—without it, these institutions lose purpose. In the University of Cincinnati, free speech was restricted under the guise of protecting the students’ education. Yet, limiting “free” speech is, in itself, a contradiction—“free” implies that it is without restriction. Limiting student speech in order to further an educational institution is counterintuitive. When free speech is inhibited, individuals are unable to speak their mind and spread innovative ideas and diverse beliefs; they are unable to develop and progress as they could in free conversation with each other. Without the ability to freely move and spread, ideas, theories, and discoveries are killed. Moreover, under such restrictions, an idea is unable to reach beyond campus walls and positively affect the greater community. As a foundation of a successful institution of higher education, academic speech needs to have the ability to move and spread freely.

Student voices were also censored at Valdosta State University, where the students’ education and rights were again threatened. The administration of the University aimed to construct a parking garage which would come with a costly, mandatory fee for the students. In response, one of the Valdosta students had an alternative idea that would have potentially greatly benefited both the students and the University. When news of the student’s new idea reached the University administration, they quickly rejected the student’s idea and even tried to expel the student solely for speaking his mind. With his rights clearly violated, the student called FIRE to help him and together they took the case to court. This infringement of the freedom of speech was detrimental to not only the student, but the entire school. The administration’s attempt to expel the student in turn discouraged other students from proposing their ideas and alternatives for the possible improvement of the campus. By limiting one student’s right to develop and spread his idea, the entire campus was essentially silenced.

Free speech is a fundamental right to every student in higher education. Without this natural right, scholarly activity is hindered. Free speech allows students to express themselves and invites other students to learn from and challenge their beliefs. When students are encouraged to freely express their suggestions and theories, institutions of higher education are able to improve. Therefore, free speech contributes to the growth and success of the students as well as their respective university. As long as students are granted the right to share their ideas and beliefs, they are encouraged to grow as scholars; the development of the students’ ideas is akin to their own personal academic development. The foundations of colleges and universities depend on the freedom of speech, as it promotes the contribution, share, and development of academia.

Colleges and universities must allow free speech in order for the students to succeed and develop as intellects. As the students contribute their ideas and beliefs to the academic conversation on campus, institutions as a whole are able to grow and develop. As illustrated in the cases of the University of Cincinnati and Valdosta State University, when student speech is restricted the entire student body and academic climate is at risk. This unconstitutional act inhibits the entire educational process by discouraging the students from taking part in their natural rights and educational experiences. Free speech is integral for the success of students in higher education—without it, not only is the entire educational process in danger, but the entire nation as well. The nation is built upon the success of the students, and when the students are restricted, the nation is restricted.