Anessa Petteruti

Are Colleges Campuses Really Bastions of Free Speech?

Are College Campuses Really Bastions of Free Speech?


Students at California State University barricade a theater where Ben Shapiro was scheduled to give a lecture in February 2016

By Anessa Petteruti


The good news is that both liberals and conservatives have reached consensus that free speech is a fundamental human right.  However, “free speech” has apparently been redefined to mean “speech with which I agree.”


Today’s students are indeed both more left wing and more openly hostile to free speech than earlier generations of collegians.  Over the past few years, there have been numerous cases of liberal college students and their administrators disinviting speakers as demonstrated by the cancellation of a young conservative Ben Shapiro’s talk at California State University at Los Angeles and threatening to defund newspapers as in the scenario at Wesleyan University in which a thirty-year-old Iraq War veteran wrote an opinion column for the Wesleyan Argus.  


Recently, activists disrupted – without sanction – a conservative speaker in a public forum at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and they demanded that the administration disallow conservative speakers from appearing on campus.  Due to this dislike for conservative rhetoric and conservative free speech, several students in colleges feel that they “shut up” in class out of fear of being targeted for harboring inappropriate views.  The evident lack of intellectual diversity fuels legislative disrespect, and the University of Wisconsin is not alone in experiencing these and related problems.


A survey question that has been asked nearly every year since 1967 inquired whether “colleges have the right to ban extreme speakers from campus.”  In 2016, about 43 percent of freshmen said they agreed, which is nearly twice as high as the average share proclaiming the same in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.  In general, support for banning speakers from campuses has certainly trended upward over time.  Recent incidents suggest that students have expansive views of what constitutes an “extreme speaker.”  Among those forced to withdraw or disinvited from campus speeches are Suzanne Venker, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, current Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, and International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde.


Another survey question asked freshmen whether they would participate in student demonstrations while in college; 8.5 percent proclaimed there was a “very good chance” they would.  That statistic was also the highest share on record, higher even than responses during the years of Vietnam protests during the counterculture 1960s.  In the year of the Columbia University student takeover, 1968, only 4.5 percent of freshmen nationwide said they expected to protest.


Some of these protests have been successful.  For example, students at the University of Missouri demanded that their president resign over the administration’s inadequate handling of racial tensions.  Even the school’s football team threatened not to play unless he agreed, and ultimately, the president stepped down.


A final survey finding of interest: the highest share of students since 1973 now consider themselves left of center.  Similarly, the highest share of college freshmen since 1970 call themselves “far left.”  It is important to note that these survey questions were asked of newly matriculated college freshmen.  That is, students are setting foot on campus already more liberal, more protest-happy, and more amenable to speech restrictions than their predecessors.


However, aside from examining several examples of free speech violations on college campuses, it is of utmost importance to investigate what exactly the (every American citizen’s) constitution states involving free speech.  Submitted for ratification on September 25, 1789 and adopted on December 15, 1791, the First Amendment of the United States Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for the redress of grievances.”  The First Amendment clearly states that there should be no “abridging of the freedom of speech.”  So the question arises: why are colleges and other campuses harboring only liberal speech and not free speech, in general?


Many college students across the country have already taken to social media to spread the hashtag, #LiberalPrivilege, meaning liberals claim they are silenced while actually they are silencing their conservative peers on campus.

So before your emotions take you, and you are so ready to interrupt and object to a person of the opposing ideology’s statement, think twice, remember the phrase of the First Amendment – “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech” – and agree to disagree.

2 thoughts on “Are Colleges Campuses Really Bastions of Free Speech?

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