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[COMMENTARY] Free Speech on College Campuses? Uphold the Ancient and Current Right

[COMMENTARY] Free Speech on College Campuses? Uphold the Ancient and Current Right

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) released its 2021 College Free Speech Rankings. The results suggest a pattern of self-censorship on the part of students and a trend of faculty limiting free speech on campuses.

(Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The report reveals a four-point rise in student support for speaker shout-downs. These statistics will undoubtedly fuel the narrative of a free speech crisis on college campuses.

However, as Free Speech Week 2021 is during this month, it is critical to address how the politically charged environment is shaping this conversation. Hyper-partisanship has redrawn the battlefield lines over free speech to squarely fit on college campuses.

The stakes are raised as state legislators are attempting to legislate their way into the conversation. In Florida, Gov. Bill DeSantis signed into law House Bill 233 that “prohibits [the] State Board of Education and BOG from shielding students, staff, and faculty from certain speech; and requires [the] State Board of Education to conduct an annual assessment on intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity.”

This law is a particularly problematic example of politicking in higher-ed because its intent is cloaked in the rhetoric of the first amendment. DeSantis claims the bill will ensure a “variety of ideological and political perspectives.”

However, a faculty union in Florida argues in a lawsuit that his claim is little more than a false flag aimed at further mobilizing a niche brand of conservatism he relies on for support.

Clearly, this bill is a solution in search of a problem. The evidence further crystallizes this point four months after the bill was signed into law, in the form of reports from Florida showing the difficulty of operationalizing a solution when you aren’t clear on the problem.

Speaking in support of the bill, Rep. Spencer Roach (R-North Fort Meyers, Fla.) said, “I’m not asking you to make a policy decision here, all I’m asking you to do is to allow us to ask the question.”

 Equally concerning is Florida’s attempts to surveil free speech not limited to college campuses. Florida S.B. 7072 attempted to give all Floridians the ability to sue Big Tech companies if they feel their voice has been unfairly censored. While that bill may be held up in the courts, Florida’s free speech efforts are being used as a model for other states. 11 states have joined Florida to submit an appeal in support of the law.

Considering the potential implications of this type of legislation to sanction a form of surveillance on all speech on college campuses across the country, it is urgent to analyze one of the foundational arguments in this debate. 

 As a trained rhetorician (an ancient Greek term for one who studies persuasion), as well as a professor and director of a collegiate speech and debate team, I have studied the form and function of public debate for nearly 15 years. In that time, I have found solace and wisdom, in the most difficult of debates, by going back to the Greeks. 

 Upon the invention of democracy in Ancient Greece in the fifth century B.C., it became important for public figures to train in public speaking. A group of early speech and debate scholars, the Sophists, popped up to help with the task.

 Of them, one of the most famous was ProtagorasMany historians and scholars credit him as being the first to articulate a philosophy of using debate to manage public affairs.

 Protagoras offered the consideration that “there are two sides to every question.” This advice serves as a reminder to be wary of framing societal debates in a way that presumes everyone is asking the same question, or even that everyone has access to the knowledge necessary to ask the right questions. 

 Applying this to the debate over free speech on college campuses, some better questions include how possibly intervening on free speech on campuses frames the predicament as left-leaning professors and student protesters potentially canceling anyone who does not agree with them.

 The dominant framing of the opposing side articulated by university professors and their unions is that laws like Florida’s are a partisan power grab aimed at justifying surveillance of speech on college campuses.

 However, 2020 research updated from the Knight Foundation reveals students welcome a learning environment that includes offensive views as long as those views do not explicitly target race or ethnicity.

 This report provides a more nuanced framing of the debate over free speech on campuses. Instead of asking whether or not there is support for free speech on college campuses, a better question is:  how can we better support free speech alongside inclusion initiatives on college campuses?

 It is important to make sure we are asking the right questions because the debate over free speech on college campuses is a microcosm of bigger debates to come. These debates will have a global impact as the world attempts to contend with free speech on the internet.

 There is plenty of cause for concern because new research from Net 2021 suggests global internet freedom has declined for the 11th consecutive year.

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 In the world of collegiate debate, this situation is called a false equivalence; it is when a debate is framed in a way that both sides are said to hold equal weight or credibility.

 In this case, the idea that legislative members, who may rarely step into a current college classroom, would have the same level of credibility in a debate on free speech on campuses is a daunting logical fallacy. What should happen when an argument is proved fallacious?

 Perhaps a better framing of the debate over free speech on campuses would be to let the people with the most credibility and stake in the game ask the questions.

 This would mean that instead of spending money and resources mandating surveys of intellectual diversity through state boards of education, universities could be incentivized through grants and other funds to engage in this dialogue on their own campuses.

 This can turn the debate from a false dichotomy of “professors either are or aren’t supporting free speech on campuses” to “how can we better support higher education professionals trying to tackle these problems?” 

 It is only by asking the right questions that it is possible to pull civic education out of this period of stasis.

 Reports like FIRE’s College Free Speech Rankings reveal the debate over free speech on campuses is more nuanced than political partisans would have you believe. Policymakers must not follow the lead of Florida legislation. Government conducting surveillance in higher education is not acceptable.

Aristotle, a contemporary of Protagoras, offered that “the mark of an educated mind is to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

About the Author:
Stephanie Wideman is an assistant professor in the department of communication at the University of Indianapolis and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project. She has coached and directed collegiate speech and debate teams for over a decade.

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