Jennifer Schubert-Akin | Free Speech Rights Under Attack

SCV Voices: Guest Commentary
SCV Voices: Guest Commentary

Last month, California Rep. Ted Lieu said, “I would love to be able to regulate the content of speech; the First Amendment prevents me from doing so.” 

This remarkable statement is just the latest in a string of attacks against free speech by California policymakers. Last year, the state Legislature introduced a bill to regulate “fake news” on social media and ban books that counseled against gender reassignment surgery. In addition, its law requiring pregnancy centers to advertise abortion services was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

The threat to free speech is greatest on college campuses, which are supposed to be places of free and open debate. 

Across the country, colleges have instituted speech codes, free speech zones, prohibitions against perceived verbal slights known as “micro-aggressions,” among a slew of other speech controls. 

Last month, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education released a report finding that 90 percent of public and private higher education institutions in the U.S. restrict the speech of their faculty and students. 

And last year, a Gallup/Knight Foundation poll found that 61 percent of college students believe that the climate on their campus “prevents some students from expressing their views.”

Free speech on campus is especially important because this is where the next generation of business and political leaders are forming their opinions and ideas. In order to make these opinions robust and advance human knowledge, a competitive marketplace of ideas — unencumbered by controls — must exist to test and challenge them.  

Free speech is not only necessary to advance human knowledge but also to protect against recurrently popular, yet dangerous, arguments. How are students — and future generations — supposed to be able to reason against, for instance, tribalism or eugenics unless they are exposed to them? 

Philosopher John Stuart Mill said it best when he argued that without free debate, people cling to their opinions like they hold on to their prejudices, believing them to be right but not really understanding why, or ever seriously considering that they might be wrong. 

“He who knows only his own side of the case,” argued Mill, “knows little of that.”

Unsurprisingly, free speech controls seem to be impeding learning on campus. Several recent studies have found most students show little-to-no improvement in analytical reasoning, critical thinking, problem solving, and writing skills over the course of their college studies. 

Ironically, the biggest proponents of campus speech controls are students and faculty in the liberal arts, whose writing and creativity could itself be subject to government regulations if free speech protections disappear. 

Fortunately, there has been a recent backlash against campus speech controls. More than 50 colleges, including several in California, have adopted the so-called “Chicago Statement” — produced by the Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago — guaranteeing “all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.” 

It codifies that “it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”

On Jan. 31, two of the nation’s leading free speech proponents, Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz and University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax, will further this case for free speech on campus at a public event at Pepperdine University. In addition to their persuasive arguments, they can draw on their personal experiences, being on the receiving end of attempts to stifle their speech.

This free speech fight will be victorious when the overwhelming majority of college campuses commit to preserving free speech and when business and political leaders can make the case for it beyond simply falling back on the First Amendment as a crutch — or a roadblock.

Jennifer Schubert-Akin is the chair and CEO of The Steamboat Institute.

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