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Freedom of Thought Prohibits Freedom of Speech, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

Abstract

The first amendment to the United States Bill of Rights states that no person may abridge the freedom speech of another, or infringe on the freedom of the press (Scarberry, 2009). This would imply that any U.S. citizen has the right to say whatever he or she chooses. In essence, the amendment rewards U.S. citizens with the right to express themselves without fear of persecution. As such, modern higher education systems have adopted academic freedom and freedom of expression as birthrights justified by the Bill of Rights. However, these freedoms afforded to young scholars cannot be reduced to one single justification. Speech codes not only revoke the birthright of freedom speech and expression, it also prohibits the potential for growth and individualism. Students cannot learn to prosper, if their growth is limited by outlandish restriction.

Introduction

“People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they never use,” ― Søren Kierkegaard.

The first amendment to the United States Bill of Rights states that no person may abridge the freedom speech of another, or infringe on the freedom of the press (Scarberry, 2009). This would imply that any U.S. citizen has the right to say whatever he or she chooses. In essence, the amendment rewards U.S. citizens with the right to express themselves without fear of persecution. As such, modern higher education systems have adopted academic freedom and freedom of expression as birthrights justified by the Bill of Rights. However, these freedoms afforded to young scholars cannot be reduced to one single justification. Freedom of speech has been historically legitimized, specifically in institutes of higher education, by the pursuit of self-edification and a personal search for truth (Andreescu, 2009). It is clear that the right to freedom of thought and expression are crucial components to institutes of higher education. However, it is equally important to recognize the responsibility that accompanies freedom of expression. This paper will examine the justifications for freedom of expression in universities and offer arguments to support the notion that freedom of expression is a basic human right that loses its power when abused.

Discussion

Modern institutions for higher learning propagate the importance of freedom of speech and expression. They argue that no thought or idea may be forbidden or banned; specifically in a university setting. In essence, they regard freedom of thought and expression as essential components to the functionality of a college or university (Bok, 2003). An institute of higher learning, by its very definition, is a medium to transmit existing knowledge; however, proponents of freedom of expression in universities and colleges argue that universities are also mediums that interpret and explore knowledge through the examination of the old and the propositions of the new. In other words, universities depend on the freedom of expression from its students because some of those expressions might very well propose a new, undiscovered truth (Bok, 2003).

It is no mystery that freedom of thought and expression in universities has the power to spark passionate debates. It is through these debates that each involved party has the opportunity to express his or her thoughts or feelings, free from the fear of persecution. That remains true, regardless of how offensive, wrong, or distasteful those thoughts or expressions may be. However, a growing number of American schools and universities have gone to great extents to repress freedom of expression; despite national propagandas that state otherwise. For instance, during the last presidential elections, Christopher Newport University in Virginia prohibited students from protesting during an appearance by vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan (Lukianoff, 2012). The university has a policy that students have to apply 10 days in advance to demonstrate in school’s designated ‘free speech’ zone. Unfortunately Ryan’s visit was announced only two days before his arrival, allowing now possibility for students to apply for protest.

The university implemented this policy to promote ‘political correctness’ among its students. In other words, in an effort to prevent students from making hurtful statements in the name of freedom of speech, the university implemented speech codes (Lukianoff, 2012). Although these codes are implemented with good intentions, it has been criticized for violating basic constitutional rights. Under the rules of speech codes, students have to receive permission to organize demonstrations and display flags and posters (Bok, 2003). These requirements have prompted many to argue that students’ rights to demonstrate their beliefs are harshly controlled. Although speech codes have been implemented to retain a sense of civility among a diverse student body, its intentions backfire because it blatantly suppresses free expression.

Any university campus is a representation of a culturally diverse community. Schools often pride themselves on that fact and use the notion of diversity to attract even larger groups of diverse populations. However, the campus climate at any educational institution can have a profound effect on its continued diversity. In other words, if a certain group of people feel like a majority of the student body or faculty is intolerant to their background or beliefs then that group of people will likely refrain from attending that school, thereby contributing to the school’s lack of continued diversity. That, at least, is the premise of the argument for speech codes. Numerous higher education institutions in America have adopted speech code policies to protect students from hateful language and verbal assaults (Biesta, 2007). Many of these verbal assaults pertain to sexist, racial, of homophobic speech. Universities offer numerous reasons to support the ban on such expression. For instance, the University of Delaware argues that victims of verbal assaults expressed outrage. The university agreed with the victims’ discontent and supported their concerns by stating that verbal assaults create environments that are inimical to learning. In other words, verbal assaults, regardless of who initiates them, slow down the progress of academic learning, which is the primary purpose of being enrolled at a university.

However, while it is understandable why such regulations are required, it is equally as disconcerting that speech is banned or punished. There is no justification to ban speech for its content. A university fails to fulfill its purpose if it proscribes ideas. Through banning speech, an institution of higher education does a great disservice to its academic mission. Proponents of speech codes at universities argue that they seek to defend the distinction between the content of speech and the manner of speech (Biesta, 2007). That statement can be labeled as untenable because an offensive phrase is typically chosen for its expressive power. In other words, attempting to differentiate between content and style in an effort to determine which is less, or more harmful will prove fruitless because they are part of the same whole.  Words are powerful because they simultaneously exhibit emotive and cognitive force. As such, it will remain an impossible task to distinguish between style and substance of speech in efforts to regulate speech.

Speech code proponents argue that speech regulation is justified because it protects those who are affected from harm, and it also protects the learning environment of the institution. However, as an institution of higher education, a university may not attempt to differentiate between the values of speech, or choose which groups may speak and which groups should be protected from speech. A speech code does just that; it implies that the university has the authority to determine which speech is permissible as acceptable forms of expression, and which speech is not. Through the implementation of speech codes, universities will have to justify their protection of some students, and not of others. In their defense, they will have to justify, without reference to religion or politics, why one group requires protection. This will mean that other groups, who are not protected, will begin to seek similar advantages.

An Ohio University student was reprimanded by school faculty for posting a sign on her door, which stated that neither 2012 presidential candidates were fit for office (Lukianoff, 2012). The student appealed her case and won. One cannot help but wonder what the premise of the school’s argument was that she could not have the sign. If she stated that both candidates were incompetent, she inadvertently agreed with a large majority of the American population. The country showed a great divide during the past elections and election results indicated a close run. This means that only little more than half of the nation favored the reelection of President Obama and a little less than half the nation voted for Romney’s election. So, if this student stated that neither was competent, she would have shared the sentiments of a large number of the American population. Her sign, therefore, did not target a specific segment of the population. Yet, speech codes determined that it was somehow offensive to a certain group of people; a group of people that most likely would never have seen her sign in the first place. This brings to question the extent of speech codes. When is it acceptable for speech codes to be enforced? Is it only when one person’s speech publically affects another person? Or is it even within the confines of a secluded community? This student who posted the sign on her door lived in campus housing. In other words, she considered it her home. She was therefore free to decorate her place of residence in whichever manner she pleases. This event raises many other questions. For instance, if a Christian student in a dorm room adorns her door with Christmas decorations; will she have to remove those decorations because they are offensive to her Muslim neighbor?

In 2011 there were 392 campuses in America that enforced speech codes. The Foundation for Individual Right in Education argues that these speech restrictions are in direct violation of the Constitution. More than 65 percent of all American colleges and universities were found to violate first amendment rights to some degree (Lukianoff, 2012). Public universities are prohibited, under the first amendment, from restricting non-disruptive speech. Universities across the nation have implemented speech codes for various reasons. In many cases these codes have been implemented for mere administrative convenience. In other words, to minimize paperwork associated with a verbal assault, the university would rather implement a speech code, so as to prevent the abusive from taking place in the first place. Students go to universities to learn. They learn about life and gather knowledge that will sustain their adulthoods. However, it remains a near impossible task for students to learn if they are forced to reconsider everything they want to say. Speech codes are impractical because by its very nature it prohibits freedom of speech. It is also impractical because it can result in the misinterpretation of an innocent gesture. For instance, in 2009 Yale students designed t-shirts that were to be worn at an annual football game against Harvard. The t-shirt design was a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920 novel This Side of Paradise.  It read “I think all Harvard men are sissies”. It was a humorous attack on Yale’s football rivals, and made in good academic spirits. However, the students were banned from wearing the t-shirts because some gay and lesbian students at the school argued that it was a homophobic slur. They insisted that the word “sissies” was derogatory. The quotation comes from an esteemed novel, written more than 80 years ago. It referenced collegiate rivalries. However, due to speech codes, such a simple, and frankly very clever notion, was shot down. It is preposterous to penalize a notion; especially when it is so severely removed from its original context.

Conclusion

Speech codes not only revoke the birthright of freedom speech and expression, it also prohibits the potential for growth and individualism. Students cannot learn to prosper, if their growth is limited by outlandish restriction. If they do manage growth, it will be in the direction that their limits to freedom of speech led them. It is more plausible to cultivate the good and reprimand the bad, than to see bad in every possible circumstance so as to prevent growth altogether. Instead of attaching restriction to speech, colleges and universities should develop systems that punish bad behavior, rather than bad speech. It is crucial to exercise one’s right to free speech, but not in the absence of free thought.

References

Andreescu, L. (2009). Foundations of Academic Freedom: Making New Sense of Some Aging Arguments. Studies In Philosophy & Education, 28(6), 499-515.

Biesta, G. (2007). Towards the knowledge democracy? Knowledge production and the civic role of the university. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 26, 467–479.

Bok, D. (2003). Universities in the marketplace: The commercialization of higher education. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Lukianoff, G. (2012, October 24). Feigning Free Speech on Campus. Retrieved from The New York Times: Opinion Pages: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/25/opinion/feigning-free-speech-on-campus.html

Scarberry, M. S. (2009). John Leland and James Madison: Religious Influence on the Ratification of the Constitution and on the Proposal of the Bill of Rights. Penn State Law Review, 113(3), 733-800.

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