Two Truths And A Lie: Free Speech & Universities

By: Inez Feltscher Stepman

Everyone loves the party game “Two Truths and a Lie.” Americans are increasingly concerned about what looks like a developing free speech crisis on the country’s university campuses. Can you guess which of these following three statements about free speech on campus is false?

  1. Younger people do not value free speech and open inquiry at the same levels as past generations.
  1. Despite numerous victories for free speech in federal courts, universities, including public universities, continue to maintain a shocking number of unconstitutional policies restricting the speech of their students, faculty, and invited guests.
  1. Federal judges have the sole responsibility to protect freedom of speech on college campuses.

Let’s see how you did!

  1. True! Unfortunately, surveys and polls document a decline in the percentage of young Americans dedicated to the principle of free speech. Forty percent of millennials and 41 percent of Gen Z students think certain types of “offensive speech” should not be allowed, while fewer than a quarter of Boomers, and just 12 percent of the Silent Generation agree. Even more disturbingly, one in five students reports that physical violence is an acceptable response to offensive speech.
  1. True! While court victories have laid down judicial doctrine on the unconstitutionality of public universities employing “speech zones” and the speech-chilling effects of “Bias Response Teams,” 91 percent of colleges and universities still receive yellow or red ratings from FIRE, which tracks these kinds of policies.
  1. False! While the work of the federal courts in upholding the First Amendment is absolutely critical, it cannot substitute for more serious incentive realignment through policy and legislation, nor can it address the rising anti-speech culture that makes 68 percent of students feel they have to self-censor on campus. Tying generous federal benefits to protections will give university administrators more immediate consequences for violating free speech rights than what is often a slow and resource-intensive process in the courts.

Universities, particularly public universities which have Constitutional obligations, should offer a place for open inquiry and robust debate. IWF has dedicated the October Policy Focus to tackling how we might be able to once again have a university system that upholds, rather than tramples, the cherished American principle of free speech.

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