Free Speech: The Core of Higher EducationBy Kayla HutchersonFree Speech: The Core of Higher EducationFrench writer and philosopher Voltaire once said, “I do not agree with what you haveto say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” This right to free speech, provided tothe people of the United States in the First Amendment, is a critical component of highereducation. Freedom of speech advances knowledge, protects us from corrupt government,and stimulates individualism.
Free speech advances knowledge while censorship stifles it. Peter Salovey, Presidentof Yale University, in his freshmen address to the class of 2018, described how Yale’spolicies on free expression are based upon a report by C. Vann Woodward. The reportbegins with “The primary function of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledgeby means of research and teaching. To fulfill this function a free interchange of ideas isnecessary not only within its walls but with the world beyond as well. It follows that theuniversity must do everything possible to ensure within it the fullest degree of intellectualfreedom” (Salovey).
Opposing ideas and contrasting opinions cause claims to be furtherresearched and thus knowledge to be gained. When conflicting viewpoints are expressed,students seek the truth, but if only one opinion is allowed to be expressed, the majority ofstudents will unquestioningly accept that opinion without understanding that a different viewmay be correct. They are not stimulated to question a view that could very easily be untrue.For example, in 1633, philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician Galileo Galilei wroteabout his belief that the earth revolved around the sun. This belief was contrary to theteaching of the Catholic church, so the church banned Galileo’s book of his findings, andGalileo spent the rest of his life under house arrest, forbidden from spreading his ideas. Ittook 300 years for the Catholic church to recognize Galileo’s belief that the earth revolvedaround the sun as fact (History.com Staff). The Catholic church’s censorship of Galileo’sbelief prohibited the public from possessing the knowledge of a key fact regarding theworking of the solar system.
If students are not exposed to or allowed to express diverseopinions, awareness is diminished and potential knowledge is suppressed.Furthermore, with the right to free speech comes access to information and thusprotection against corrupt leadership. In the famous Zenger trial, John Peter Zenger was triedunder the Sedition Act for printing accusations against a corrupt governor, “seditious libel.”By raising awareness of the governor’s faults, he enabled the people to take action against thegovernor’s corruption (“The Trial of John Peter Zenger”). It is essential that citizens haveaccess to information and ideas in order to be well-informed, educated, productive membersof society. If information is censored, U.S.
citizens would become vulnerable to oppressionand tyranny as in the days lived under the Sedition Acts. If censorship in colleges iscontinually practiced, students will be unable to speak out against unfair treatment and unjustcollege policies, causing those in “authority” to become too powerful. Higher educationcannot thrive in this inhibiting environment.Finally, free speech stimulates an individual spirit. In the aforementioned address,Yale President Salovey also said, “There will be times–quite frankly–when we will find theideas of others disgusting.
But the answer to speech that offends us is, most often, our ownspeech: The response to hateful speech is speech that effectively counters the words of hate”(Salovey). Without free speech, students cannot learn to respect the speakers, becomingstronger individuals themselves. Free speech allows college students to possess and articulateopinions, express faith, and declare beliefs.
They can listen to others do the same, knowingthat some people will agree with them, and others will not. However, agreement is not thegoal. Just the exposure to differing thoughts and viewpoints helps students learn more aboutthemselves. When allowed to express their opinions, college students can respect each otherfor who they are and what they believe. After hearing the perceptions of others, students caneither strengthen their resolve or abandon an ideology for a new theory.
That is the essenceof higher education.In conclusion, President Ronald Reagan once said, “”Freedom is never more than onegeneration away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It mustbe fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.” As citizens of the UnitedStates, we can use our voices to educate about the importance of free speech.
We canpersuade others to join us in our quest to protect our freedom, and we can peacefully protestwhen this right is infringed upon, just as Williams College student Zach Wood stood up forhis right to invite any speaker to the college campus, no matter what views they held(Foundation for Individual Rights in Education). Censorship eradicates freedom and is adetriment to society, hindering the advancement of knowledge, removing protection fromcorruption, and stifling individualism. Thus, let us say with Voltaire, “I’ll defend to the deathyour right to say it.” We cannot afford passivity regarding our intrinsic right to free speech.Works CitedFoundation for Individual Rights in Education. “Free Speech Essay Contest.” FIRE, 2017,www.
thefire.org/student-network/essay-contest/.History.com Staff. “Galileo Is Convicted of Heresy.
” History.com, A TelevisionNetworks, 2009, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/galileo-is-convicted-of-heresy.Salovey, Peter. “Free Expression at Yale.
” Free Expression at Yale | Office of the President,Yale University, 23 Aug. 2014,president.yale.edu/speeches-writings/speeches/free-expression-yale.”The Trial of John Peter Zenger.” Ushistory.org, Independence Hall Association, 2008,www.ushistory.org/us/7c.asp.