The real problem on university campuses isn’t that there are too few government monitors enforcing Washington’s view of the First Amendment. It is that students, and apparently some faculty as well, do not understand or appreciate the First Amendment.
For instance, a 2017 poll by the Brookings Institution found that 40 percent of college students in America don’t believe the First Amendment protects so-called “hate speech.” But, of course, it does. But because of this erroneous belief, in too many instances religious expression or political opinion is being labeled as hate.
The Founders included the freedom of speech as one of the five freedoms of the First Amendment, not to protect the type of speech that makes everyone comfortable to hear, but to protect what we are most likely not inclined to hear. Many people find certain opinions on race, sexuality, abortion or a variety of social or political issues abhorrent, but the Constitution grants them the right to express such things publicly, regardless of how uncomfortable it may make listeners.
So when President Trump issued an executive order Thursday with the intent to protect students from “censorship and coercion” on campuses nationwide, it was not without legitimate reason. Ignorance about the First Amendment has led some schools to outlaw what amounts to free inquiry and discussion of any viewpoint that offends majority — which most often translates to liberal — opinions.
But the president’s executive order is the wrong solution. It invites Washington to draw up rules that could end up just a different version of the same problem. Who would write the standards? Would anything not specifically enumerated in these be considered OK? Would these rules be enforced just as vigorously when liberal views were suppressed as they would when conservatives are silenced?
No, the First Amendment itself is the correct solution. It should be taught, appreciated and used as a defense. When speech rights are abridged, the courts should be the remedy, as they have been in the past. Washington could appropriately join in the defense of such legal challenges, as it already has on occasion.
Amid the many galling examples of university censorship, it’s worth noting that some schools have done things right.
Two years ago, conservative pundit Ben Shapiro gave a speech on the University of Utah campus. It attracted a predictable amount of protest and calls for the university to cancel the event. Instead, campus administrators allowed students to protest outside, and a beefed-up police presence kept the peace. Shapiro delivered his speech. The world didn’t end.21 comments on this story
The Founding Fathers were influenced by John Milton, a 17th-century British intellectual who said: “Though all winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and falsehood grapple. Who ever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”
The Founders understood that the best ideas often are found through unfettered exchanges. If something is offensive or wrong, people should be persuaded of this through evidence, counter-argument and debate. The best ideas will rise. The rest will fall. No one should fear speech.
President Trump has correctly enumerated a problem, but he has missed badly on the solution.
Teach the First Amendment. Defend it with vigor. Get more Americans to adopt it as part of their national DNA.