Dear College Campuses: Meet the First Amendment

By Alexandra Baruch Bachman; Staff Member (Vol. 16)

The General Issue: First Amendment + College Campuses = News

If you actively follow the news, or read the CNN updates that appear on your phone, you know that there has been a nationwide shift toward stifling free speech on college campuses. Ohio, Wisconsin, and North Carolina are all discussing free speech in the context of legislation. For example, the Wisconsin “Campus Free Speech Act,” despite its chipper and enticing name, would mandate that the University of Wisconsin system punish students who interfere with others’ speech or events.

Shifting from proposed legislation to past events, there is a growing trend toward rescinding speakers’ invitations to university campuses in order to avoid potential unrest. From UC Berkeley on the west coast, to Middlebury College on the east coast, speakers have been met with student protest. Although physical protest should never be condoned, consider the opinion of William & Mary professor Barbara King, who celebrates “intellectual turbulence because it is a clear signal to necessary intellectual engagement.”

In an attempt to understand this unrest, I have identified two theories as to the underlying issue spurring this conflict on campuses across the nation. First, we could blame the adults (the administrators and faculty).  Second, we could blame the kids (the students). In my opinion, as I will explain, we should blame both.

Theory One: Administrators and Faculty Bear the Blame

Confronted with the aforementioned tension, Congress invited five witnesses, including podcast personality Adam Carolla, to address the subcommittees on intergovernmental affairs, and on health care, benefits and administration, respectively, regarding challenges to freedom of speech on college campuses.

Carolla previously explained campus censorship “like a fart in an elevator – everyone smells it but no one will own it.. . . We must understand that we have the right to free expression, not the right to not be offended,” Carolla concluded, after identifying the many ways in which censorship disadvantages students during their time on campus and beyond.

Addressing Congress (the full hearing can be viewed here,) Carolla highlighted his time touring college campuses fifteen years ago, with “nary a word of negativity.” Fast-forward to a recent speaking engagement (with a conservative co-speaker) at a California university where the event was cancelled without justification. Never one to back down, Carolla (with the help of attorneys) fought, and ultimately won the opportunity, to address that campus at a later date.  As Carolla told Congress, for college students to learn to be adults, they must be treated as adults. Kids today are kept in a bubble, safe from the world, with the thought or hope that they will emerge stronger. This strategy, he concluded, just isn’t working.

Theory Two: Students are Misunderstanding the Constitution

Just because administrator failings have been thrust into the spotlight does not mean those are the only First Amendment issues worthy of national attention.

Regarding student understanding, a recently published survey of 1,500 undergraduate students, identifies many student misunderstandings of the First Amendment.  For example, when asked if violence is an acceptable means of preventing a speaker from speaking, 19 percent of students answered that violence is indeed acceptable. While this is by no means a majority, nor is it insinuating that a tidal wave of violence is imminent, 19 percent is significant.

My Theory: It’s Both.

The First Amendment is in the news today because of legislators’ and university administrators’ actions.  But when attention is focused exclusively on this trending topic, other issues fade into the background, despite potentially dangerous ramifications.  Reeducating the administrators is important, but so is educating the students.  Left unaddressed, we risk a future governed by a generation where nearly one-in-five believe violence is an appropriate means of stifling someone with whom they disagree. One would hope that this hypothetical future is something people on both sides of the political aisle would prefer to avoid.

In my mind, to say that the administrators are creating problems to the detriment of students is potentially worsening the issue.  If the only way for students to learn and mature as adults is to treat them like adults, then they too ought to be a part of this conversation.  For “adults” to try and deal with this issue behind closed doors, excluding students as merely the injured party is hindering progress even further.

Based on the aforementioned survey, nearly one in five undergraduate students grossly misunderstands (or is attempting to aggressively manipulate) the First Amendment.  Based on the aforementioned state and university policies, administrators and legislators grossly misunderstand the same.  I know that as a law student, I’m being trained to spot issues, but I don’t think it takes an advanced degree to recognize that there is a problem here.

I see this conflict as an ill-fated boxing match: in the red corner, we have the current generation of American leaders who don’t understand the First Amendment; and in the blue corner, we have the next generation of American leaders who don’t understand the First Amendment. As the news has made clear, the two are bouncing around the ring and beating each other senseless with no end in sight.

 How do we bring this brawl to an end? The ACLU takes the position that “instead of symbolic gestures to silence ugly viewpoints, colleges and universities have to step up their efforts” by encouraging diversity among both students and staff, advocating resources, and increasing “awareness about bigotry and its history.” Rather than just restating the problem, this recommendation encourages actual change. This strategy is easier said than done, to be sure, but with reasonable communication it seems achievable.

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