The Wilson Times

Sunday, January 05, 2014 10:10 PM

Editorial: Colleges flunk free-speech test

A Times editorial

College students returning to class for the spring semester this week might find themselves in hot water for exercising the rights they learn in lecture halls.

Two North Carolina schools — Appalachian State University in Boone and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — were recently named to a list of the 10 worst colleges in America for free speech. The Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonpartisan rights advocacy group, released the annual list on Dec. 27.

Students and professors at those schools are in danger of being punished for engaging in speech or expression that’s protected by the First Amendment, according to FIRE. And those attending other public universities in the Tar Heel State may not fare much better.

Five colleges, including East Carolina University in Greenville, earned a red-light rating from FIRE for policies that clearly and substantially restrict free speech on campus. In today’s politically correct campus climate, many of these rules target racist, sexist and homophobic speech.

While we don’t condone or encourage such views, we must recognize that unpopular and controversial expression is precisely the kind that our First Amendment is designed to protect. Government cannot discipline American citizens simply for engaging in speech that some people find offensive.

As offshoots of state government, public colleges and universities are bound to respect students’ constitutional rights. Private institutions, such as Wilson’s own Barton College, don’t have the same legal obligation, though we hope these schools will encourage students and faculty to express themselves freely.

We don’t have to look far to find some examples of campus regulations that could be used to punish protected speech.

Wilson Community College bans "indecent” language and dress that "disrespect(s) religion,” according to its website. The institution also defines "promotion of one’s beliefs to the disparagement of others” as punishable under its harassment policy.

In the 222 years since the Bill of Rights was ratified, the Supreme Court has identified a few narrow categories of speech (such as "true threats” and "fighting words”) that the First Amendment does not protect. In most cases, disciplining an adult for vulgar language alone runs afoul of the broad free-speech rights we enjoy as American citizens.

While perhaps well-intentioned, WCC’s policies run roughshod on religious liberty by telling the faithful that they can’t disrespect or disparage other beliefs. We may prefer politeness and civility, but the government simply cannot compel it.

Even if speech codes are rarely enforced, their presence in student handbooks creates a chilling effect on campus communication. A climate of self-censorship under fear of punishment is not the kind of atmosphere we want our institutions of higher learning to foster.

When students spout racist, sexist or otherwise offensive diatribes, the solution is more speech, not less. Through spirited and vigorous debate, noble ideas prevail over narrow-mindedness and bigotry. Free speech is not the enemy of tolerance; it is an indispensible ally.

College should be a place where students from diverse cultural, racial and religious backgrounds come to learn about each other, about themselves and about the world at large. It should be a place where the free and open exchange of ideas is welcomed as part of the educational process, not feared as an agent of controversy.

We’d like college administrators across North Carolina to take a second look at their policies on student expression. Our state belongs atop many national rankings, but FIRE’s annual campus censorship list shouldn’t be one of them.

©The Wilson Times, Wilson, North Carolina.
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