The college students of today are the leaders of tomorrow. What will become of our republic if they are incapable of civil discourse and debate? And what will happen to our liberties if my generation of leaders does not cherish freedom of speech, “the only effective guardian of every other right,” in James Madison’s estimation?
These questions are not overwrought.
A recent poll by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and YouGov found that more than half of students have “stopped themselves from sharing an opinion or idea in class.” Which makes sense in light of another survey by the Brookings Institution that revealed a majority of college students believe it is acceptable for a group of students to “loudly and repeatedly shout” so as to prevent an audience from hearing a speaker the group opposes. Even more troubling, nearly 20 percent of students across the ideological spectrum said that it was acceptable to use “violence to prevent the speaker from speaking.” And fewer than half of all students surveyed believed hate speech to be constitutionally protected.
This fall, colleges and universities have been forced to spend millions of dollars to protect students and controversial guest speakers from violent protests.
And many have also adopted policies that restrict free expression and prevent open and honest discussions. On campuses today, students expressing their thoughts and beliefs have been banished to “free speech zones.” Student groups and associations are required to obtain approval from university administrators several days before handing out materials, gathering together, or protesting. And professors and students have been punished for expressing controversial or unpopular opinions.
This should not be the case. College campuses must be marketplaces of ideas that foster creativity and innovation. Students should be exposed to diverse viewpoints, and learn how to think openly and critically, so they are capable of changing their minds or defending their convictions through civil discourse.
“Don’t try to shut folks out, don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them,” President Barack Obama told graduates last year. “Listen, engage, if the other side has a point, learn from them. If they’re wrong, rebut them, teach them, beat them on the battlefield of ideas.”
As a result of a law enacted earlier this year to restore and preserve free speech on UNC campuses, the North Carolina University System can bring this battlefield to life and become part of the solution.
On Dec. 15, the UNC Board of Governors will meet to establish a free expression policy that will afford greater protections to students and faculty exercising their right to free speech. Those who attempt to infringe upon the free speech rights of others through violence or disruption will be held accountable. And the University of North Carolina and its constituent institutions will be committed to the fullest degree of intellectual freedom and free expression.
According to FIRE, nine out of 16 campuses within the UNC system currently suppress expression by maintaining at least one policy that restricts categories of free speech. By approving the new policy on free expression and insisting on a renewed dedication to this most fundamental right, the Board of Governors will turn the tide. North Carolina’s university system will become a bastion of free thought and produce future leaders capable of navigating our diverse and challenging world.
Anna Beavon Gravely is the North Carolina spokesman for Generation Opportunity.