Free speech can be messy, but we need it
3 mins read

Free speech can be messy, but we need it

One of the founding principles of the United States that Americans cherish is the First Amendment, and our right to freedom of speech.

The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment on religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

In recent years, issues surrounding the exercise of free speech and expression have come to the forefront of colleges around the country.

Universities are supposed to be places where we confront unfamiliar and challenging ideas. The common narrative of free speech issues usually goes something like this: today’s college students–overprotected and poorly educated–have become easily offended; they are unwilling or unable to tolerate opinions that are not aligned with their own, instead of welcoming free speech.

This narrative is not entirely correct. The issue is not that students don’t care about free speech, it is that we are not being educated about it. According to CATO Institute, two-thirds of Americans say colleges and universities aren’t doing enough to teach young Americans about the value of free speech.

When asked which is more important, 65 percent say colleges should “expose students to all types of viewpoints, even if they are offensive or biased against certain groups”. However, Americans are conflicted. About 53 percent of Americans agree that “colleges have an obligation to protect students from offensive speech and ideas that could create a difficult learning environment.”

On the Feb. 25 episode of Wake Up Vermillion, host Rachel Newville spoke with Gene Policinski, President and Chief Operating Officer of the Freedom Forum Institute and a founding editor of USA Today, about the First Amendment, as well as issues surrounding free speech.

When asked about free speech on college campuses, Policinski said, “We find that unfortunately, we haven’t taught a lot about free speech in this country for a couple of decades, and so you really find a lot of college students who don’t understand that the point of free speech is really sometimes to hear things that you don’t want to hear…What we really find is that there is a lot of confusion on college campuses about exactly what can or should be said.”

Of course, not everyone will have the same ideas and opinions as us, but that is the real beauty of the First Amendment. If someone says something that we do not agree with, we can speak up against it. And if one person says something hateful, one hundred people can say that they disagree.

We can both allow controversial rhetoric and speak up against it–because when we pretend like that rhetoric doesn’t exist, we ignore the existence of those issues as well.