Free speech is a massive step in human civilization. The ability to say something without fear of persecution and/or death is a big step in human society and is something that only around fifty countries have. My essay is about free speech in US colleges and how it is rapidly declining at a frightening rate.
In the case of Sweezy vs. New Hampshire in 1957 the Supreme Court said, “Teachers and students must always remain free to enquire, otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die.” Many would agree with that statement and consider it true, but in modern US colleges there is a massive restriction on free speech to the point where the comment made by the Supreme Court no longer applies in some places in the US. The US colleges are literally removing free speech from our futures by stamping it out in through what they teach younger people.
In 2010, there was a study by the Association of American colleges and universities. They found that over 70% of college students found it unsafe to hold unpopular positions on campus. This means they may have had opinions and thoughts about issues, but they did not feel safe expressing their thoughts in college.
Another troubling element of the 2010 is that the longer the student spends in the college, the less safe he or she feels about holding and expressing unpopular opinions. If we were to blame outside influences, then students would enter and leave college either as safe or unsafe as they like. However, it is clear that the longer a student spends in college, then the more restricted and repressed his or her freedom of speech is. The freshmen students feel safer using their freedom of speech, but they begin to feel less safe as they move through college.
To clarify, the feeling of safety is safety from repercussions and not from physical harm. The students feel safe from harm in college, but they do not feel safe from the penalization from professors. They feel uneasy about expressing their unpopular positions or opinions within their work and dissertations, and they do not feel as if they are free to speak their true feelings and opinions because they fear they will be marked down and/or looked upon unfavorably by the people that control their grades and ability to get their qualifications.
What is more worrying is the fact that colleges and universities in the US are blatantly restricting student’s freedom of speech. They claim they do it to help avoid people getting offended, which further proves the point that freedom of speech is less important to these colleges that the fear of people being offended. To cast freedom of speech aside for any reason, noble or not, is to shatter its very foundation and urinate in the faces of the people that died for it.
Speech codes are a common and blatant sign that students are having their freedom of speech restricted. The colleges and universities are not even hiding the fact that their speech codes are regulations that limit or bans expression. It literally says that in their regulations.
The first amendment in the US constitution states implicitly that people are allowed to speak and write what they wish, and yet colleges and universities are disregarding it when they set use speech codes. Yet, what is it that colleges are protecting students from? If it were from people writing instructions on how to build a bomb, then one could argue that the protection of life is more important than freedom of speech.
Yet, all of the speech codes in US colleges and universities are there to stop people writing or saying things that the college/university in question feels are offensive. They usually revolve around religion or political views. Colleges and universities in the US are banning students from speaking, writing and even holding opinions that contradict what the college likes, and that is a blatant middle finger to a US citizen’s freedom of speech.
“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
Adopted in 1791, the First Amendment, states that “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” (Pilon, p. 13) The freedom of speech documented in the First Amendment is not only a constitutional protection, but also an inevitable part of democratic government and independence, which are essential values in our society. “Censorship,” according to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, “is an almost irresistible impulse when you know you are right” (Sunstein, p. 25). That is why the American citizen’s right to free speech is should be held as the highest virtue and any censorship of freedom of speech should not be allowed, but only respected.
Freedom of speech is essential part of democratic government, because the only way truth can emerge is when there is an open competition of ideas. However, there is a strong support of censorship when people start mentioning extremely offensive opinions. Should the freedom of speech be limited in this case? The answer is “No”. “If liberty means anything at all,” writes George Orwell, “it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” (Cox, p. 36) If we want to enjoy the freedom fully, the full protection should be given to the freedom of speech; there are no compromises about it.
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Freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment is not just a right, which can be declared or abolished. According to the “liberty theory”, proposed by some legal scholars, freedom of speech is an essential part of the liberty of every person, who pursues an individual self-determination and self-realization (Cox, 1981). Thus, freedom of speech is also a part more global right to freedom of personal development and self-expression.
Another theoretical ground to support the freedom of speech is called “tolerance theory”. It holds that the ability to teach and promote tolerance is one of the most important assets of freedom of speech (Cox, 1981). From this perspective, freedom of speech itself excludes any type of intolerance, which sometimes appears in a threatening form (religious intolerance, racial intolerance. The “tolerance theory” implies self-restraint, which is the only appropriate response to any ideas, even those that we may personally dislike or hate. The “tolerance theory” provides a broader context for exercising tolerance in a conflict-ridden democratic society.
In legal practice there are certain restrictions on freedom of speech imposed by the Supreme Court. They define a few categories of speech, which are considered to be not fully protected by the First Amendment. These categories include defamation, advocacy of imminent illegal conduct, obscenity and fraudulent misrepresentation (Farber, 1998). However, if the speech doesn’t fall within one of these categories, there are no grounds for the government to argue that freedom of speech should be restricted because of its harmful content.
One of the common bases for partial censorship is proof that the freedom of speech causes imminent illegal action. The Supreme Court has already drawn a careful line between general abstract theories and political dissent on one hand and particular illegal acts incitement on the other. This line is drawn by definition of “clear and present danger” test (Farber, 1998). The government cannot sue the speech on the basis of its tendency or possibility illegal conduct incitement. Before any speech is punished on the grounds of incitement, there is an obligatory three-part criterion that should be met. First, the speech must directly incite lawless action. Second, the context of speech must imply imminent breaking of the law, rather than call for illegal conduct at some indefinite future time. At last, there should be a strong intention to produce such conduct(Farber, 1998).
Such “clear and present danger” test determines the level of probability of threat imposed by the speech in question. However, the actual evil, which the government tries to prevent by outlawing the advocacy, does not outweigh the harm of outlawing the free speech. Only when the imposed danger becomes evident, the freedom of speech may be questioned. But we must be aware that the price for preventing several cases of the openly declared illegal conduct may be paid by restriction of one of the most essential rights that constitute freedom for the entire nation.
For the wellbeing and public safety the Supreme Court has imposed certain regulations on the freedom of speech not because of its content, but because of the time, place and manner the speech is being expressed (Farber, 1998). However, these rules do not limit the actual freedom of speech and are not even upheld, if there is no public need for this.
However, when it comes to the content-neutral regulation, it raises many controversial issues. The content-neutral regulation requires a very careful distinction and therefore may sometimes be misinterpreted. There is a raising concern that such regulation may weaken people’s right to participate, especially if the government puts too many restrictions on how the ideas should be voiced.
Thus, by analyzing the current issues concerning the First Amendment right to free speech in the United States, I wanted to show the perspective of outlawing this right and the negative aspects that such outlawing may involve. Freedom of speech has served a crucial role for the right to dissent and for the entire principle of democracy in our society. This law was developed during the course of American history and only after numerous struggles it was achieved. The evolution of this law is still in progress, however, the limitation of the basic right to free speech may as well limit our freedom and democracy, therefore should be respected and protected.
Cox, A. Freedom of Expression. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1981.
Farber, D. The First Amendment. NY: Foundation Press, 1998.
Pilon, Roger. (Preface) The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. Cato Institute, 2000.
Sunstein, C. Democracy and the Problem of Free Speech. NY: Free Press, 1993.
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