Freedom to speak restricted on public campus

By Casey Pigg

Freedom of speech has been a widely talked about and extremely controversial subject for the past several decades, if not centuries. Multiple famous leaders and writers throughout history, from Frederick Douglas to Evelyn Beatrice Hall, have warned us to maintain the unalienable right to freedom of speech. Yet, this right continues to be denied in several places, with one of those places being higher education.

College is meant to be a place where we, as students, explore various thoughts and ideas that challenge the way that we think and view the world. It is a place for us to explore different ways to look at problems and situations. It is a place for us to learn who we are and what we hold true.

In a place that is supposed to help us form our own thoughts and opinions about various aspects of life, it seems almost impossible for restrictions on speech to even exist. It would take away that which is meant to challenge us in the first place: conflicting view points and opinions over life’s hardest questions with no single correct answer.

With this near impossibility in mind, it shocked me to come across a situation where my own rights to freedom of speech were being challenged. In a previous article, Quincy University Cru Serves Close to Home, I wrote about a trip that a bible study from QU took to New Orleans. On this trip, myself and the other St. Louis regional members of Cru did service work for the community, and we took a few days to go to the local colleges in the area and talk to students about their faith and life views.

On one particular campus, my group partner, Elliot Clerc from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and I seemed to have many positive conversations with students who held a multitude of diverse beliefs. Despite these voluntary positive interactions with multiple students, we were asked to leave campus by faculty and security because we were talking about subjects that they said did not pertain to the education of the college’s students.

This bothered both Clerc and myself from more than just from a religious view point. The largest issue we found with this is that it was a public institution.

“This shows how biased our so-called institutions of free thought are,” Clerc said.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case either. A study done in 2016 by a University of Illinois employment law expert showed that out of 210 lawsuits from 1964-2014 involving professors’ rights to freedom of speech alone, 73 percent of the cases were won by the educational institutions instead of the professors. Several cases over varying aspects of freedom of speech in public colleges have taken place since the ruling of Tinker v. Des Moines, a historic Supreme Court case from 1969 that dealt with students’ rights to free speech in public schools.

While there are some who have gone the legal route to fight the restriction of the First Amendment, so many other students, faculty and staff face these same restrictions quietly. According to a study done by Fire, at least half of colleges rated in 11 states earned FIRE’s worst rating for “clearly and substantially” restricting free speech rights in 2019.

Percentage of “red light” institutions per state according to Fire’s study

Not only that, but they estimate that almost 800,000 students from top universities all over the United States must use “free speech zones” in order to exercise their First Amendment right.

When asked whether he felt there was a problem with freedom of speech, Clerc responded with a resounding yes.

“As long as we are not restricting other’s rights, then we should be allowed to speak,” Clerc said. “Apparently, people have a ‘right’ to not be offended. Merely offending someone is not restricting their rights. That is just a way for them to say they don’t like our views, so we can’t speak. If they applied the same rules to themselves, they wouldn’t be allowed to speak either.”

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