Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Free Speech on College Campuses

By Natasha HerrickPublished March 23, 2014

The extent to which college campuses should protect free speech remains debatable, but it is important that the students themselves are kept in the conversation.

By Natasha Herrick, 3/23/2014

I sat in on a University Assembly meeting at my college, where members voted on a proposed amendment to the Campus Code of Conduct.  Students and faculty present at the meeting were concerned that the proposed lines created a threat to free speech through ambiguous language such as the line stating that that activities like marches and picketing would be allowed "so long as they respect the policies of the space in question"  It was unclear under whose authority one could press charges, but it gave this unspecified authority the power to determine whether the nature of the speech was permissible.

Issues regarding free speech on campus are faced by college campuses across the United States.  The First Amendment protects individual free speech from government interference.  Public colleges and universities are legally bound to respect the constitutional rights of students, but private universities are not directly bound to these rights.  Nevertheless, private colleges are contractually bound to respect the promises they make to students.  Thus, if a college advertises freedom of expression in its promotional materials, the college would be legally obligated to follow up on that promise.  But, when the policies of the campus fall beyond contractual obligation, should it be the responsibility of colleges to protect free speech?  College is an opportunity to learn from unexpected sources and question conventional knowledge, in order to expand one's knowledge.

Still, many colleges are taking measures to limit such opportunities.  College campuses can create free speech zones that are small and designated to certain areas of campus.  Furthermore, campuses may have restrictions on the time of speech and have an approval process which may limit the spontaneous nature of protesting.  These rules and regulations may have a logical basis to make sure education remains the institution's primary mission.  But, where does one draw the line?  It seems reasonable to have restrictions so that one does not disrupt a test.  Yet, when these limits become arbitrary and constricted to a very confined space, they seem less reasonable.  When approval for a space is required, one starts to wonder on what basis is approval given for a demonstration.

However, questionable restrictions of free speech may also offer some benefits.  Traditionally, the First Amendment protects the rights of speech even if it is viewed as offensive by many because it still contains political ideas.  Yet, universities are able to restrict hate speech on campuses.  Hate speech lies in an oppressive history and may interfere with a student's ability to participate fairly in their academics and in campus life. Regardless of whether one thinks hate speech should be constitutional, private universities are more easily able to restrict hate speech when they do not have to abide by the First Amendment.  If we held colleges to the same standards to which we hold our government, we might lose such protections against hate speech, which currently seems to protect the mental well-being of students on campuses.

Despite the nuanced considerations surrounding the question of how far college campuses should go in protecting speech, I believe it is the utmost importance that that colleges continue to listen to and include the voice of students in their decisions.  More importantly, but likely more difficult to guarantee, caution must be taken to avoid giving certain students' speech precedence over others.  At the University Assembly meeting, undergraduate students on the Assembly were the ones who decided to modify the proposed amendment.  Their modification included removal of the line "so long as they respect the space in question" and addition of the line "everyone has the right to be heard and to listen to others."  These undergraduate students were concerned with the opinions of other undergraduate students sitting in on the meeting, though unclear whether it was a matter of obligation to their classmates or an ability to better understand from their peer's perspective.  Nevertheless, it was imperative that the students' voices and ideas remained part of the conversation of this proposed amendment.  Students at private universities should be allowed, but even more so, encouraged to participate in deciding university policy.