The Wilson Times
subscribe now
[ Sign In ]  [ Register ]
 Text Size   •  Email  •  Printer Friendly
Bookmark and Share

Editorial: Colleges flunk free-speech test

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.

Add Comment:Show/Hide(All comments must be approved)
View Comments:Show/Hide(4 comments)
@ Campus Safety Issues said...

The answer is yes, this idiots speech should be protected.
If you can prove harm you can then file against the individual and demonstrate his actions, in conjunction with his words, has been harmful and try to get damages.
The reason it should be protected is that it if it is not protected then it becomes easier to ban more types of speech.
Words against the school, words against the president, words against anyone.
Just like banning and burning books.
Where do you draw the line?
The recent arrest for profanity is a case in point.
No one has the right to not hear or see anything they choose to not hear or see yet you can be arrested for cussing, which really hurts no one.
It may offend you but that doesn't hurt you.
You don't have the right to hear only what you want to hear.
Judge Black said it best when discussing banning pornography, " I can't define it, but I know it when I see it."
Same principal here, what you or I may think is bad, others may not or simply take in stride.
It is sad this person (and others) left school although it is possible there were other reasons.
I agree that folks should have learned by kindergarten that if they don't have anything nice to say, they should shut up.
However, legally, they don't have to.
Another example of failed responsibility that comes with the freedom (however diminishing) we enjoy.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014 at 4:53 PM
UNC said...

was black listed in the article for coming down on a female student who falsely accused her exboyfriend (another UNC student) of raping her after they broke up. How exactly is that supposed to restrict students free speech? Did anyone actually read the FIRE report?

Tuesday, January 07, 2014 at 9:50 AM
Campus safety the issue said...

When an openly gay student at ECU was continuously taunted by a "Christian" student whose goal it was to "save" the gay student from an eternity in hell, should the religious zealot's speech be protected? This went on during exams, making it stressful for the gay student. Public schools have a responsibility to provide a safe environment for all students. While some may understand this "free speech" issue as "tolerance," others who are targeted by demeaning speech understand the issue as one of safety. Intolerant speech creates unhealthy fear and stress. The story of the ECU student is of someone I know personally. Like many other lgbt students, this student eventually dropped out of school. I also know people at Barton who are constantly trying to avoid those who have demeaned their personhood by homophobic comments. The editorial's idea of debating the merits of a person's gender, sexual identity, race, etc. is a repulsive solution, i.e, a "debate on homosexuality" makes the targeted population (lgbt) no more than a football to kick around. Same thing goes for race, age, gender, etc. Folks who want to say demeaning things should've learned well before college that if they don't have anything nice to say, then kindly shut up.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014 at 1:33 AM
John Milton... said... Areopagitica, stated one of my favorite arguments for free speech:
"Let [Truth] and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?"
Another quote, often attributed to Voltaire:
"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
As a graduate of the UNC-CH J-school, I thank you for this editorial. Those who preach tolerance are often the most intolerant.

Monday, January 06, 2014 at 3:01 PM
Most Popular From the past 7 days
Most Viewed Most Commented Most Emailed
Wilson woman shares fitness story on 'Rachael Ray'
More snow expected Friday
Town police chief, employee arrested
Wilson's Artis plays at halftime today
Blaze damages Hardee's in Pinetops
Town police chief, employee arrested
Middlesex calls emergency meeting
Let's rethink these proposals
$1 million bond in rape of elderly woman
Susan Martin names campaign manager
Area Calendar Feb. 13-15
Barton golf teams eager to exceed expectations
Hunt-Fike games reset for today
Edens gets the call to lead Bruins baseball program
Burke holds court
News  |  Sports  |  Life  |  Opinion  |  Obituaries  |  Photos  |  Videos  |  Contact  |  Classifieds  |  Special Sections  |  Public Notices  |  Advertise
Powered by Google
Advanced Search