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3 Ways Colleges Are Fighting for Your First Amendment Rights

Posted on Monday February 27, 2012 by Michael Keathley

One of the time honored traditions of higher education since its very inception is free speech. From the stone seats and colonnades of ancient Mieza, Macedonia, where the voices of Aristotle, Alexander the Great, and other future notables in history can still be heard debating nearly every subject of liberal arts and sciences before spreading their ideas into Europe, Asia, and Africa, to the shores of the New World, where universities were founded as not only institutions of higher learning, but also as what the Center for Campus Free Speech refers to as “thriving marketplace[s] of ideas,” college campuses have been a force and at times a refuge for free speech.

This tradition is something many are aware of; yet, few make the connection in reverse: If a government or another entity wants to destroy free speech in a nation, it will attack universities and the right of free speech on campuses first. Then, to truncate and adjust the famous Pastor Niemoller quote, if no one speaks up in defense of higher education and its time honored tradition, who will speak up for the average citizen when those taking away this right come for them?

It’s time to not only become aware of the ways universities are fighting for your First Amendment rights, but also to defend the ways that postsecondary institutions are protecting and upholding them.

1. Providing a Platform for Free Speech
The most obvious way universities are protecting free speech is by providing a forum, a place where ideally, anyone can share and participate in the debate on a host of ideas unfettered by constraints applied in other situations and contexts. That universities are a platform for free speech dates back at least 2, 500 years to the Athenian Agora where, in the Classical Period, teachers, philosophers, and others walked the ancient marketplace sharing their views and wisdom as others listened in and engaged in the discussion. That this tradition became firmly grounded in today’s universities is easily evidenced by the history of the fifth oldest university in the United States, Columbia University . Although it was founded in 1754 while the colonies were under the rule of England, it “reopened in 1784 with a new name—Columbia—that embodied the patriotic fervor that had inspired the nation’s quest for independence,” and when it built its new campus in 1897 in its present location, it was deliberately designed after the Athenian Agora.

2. Researching and Advocating Best Practices
Another way colleges are fighting for your First Amendment rights is through the research and advocacy of best practices in most, if not all, fields. For example, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) provides a historical overview of how postsecondary educators have protected their right to research, discuss, and present results, unencumbered by constraints imposed from within and without. This 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure that was based upon predecessors, and that has been reinforced by subsequent minor revisions and clarifications, basically asserts that within all areas of the campus, educators will be free to explore that “thriving marketplace of ideas” in order to share their results for the greater good. The statement makes it clear that faculty, researchers, and others involved with such activities within the educational boundaries are not conducting research for individual profit or gain; they are doing so because “the common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.”

A part of the above process involves the time and opportunity to critically think through subjects without any constraints placed upon the discussion or impediments to free speech. Therefore, this is also something educators have fought to maintain. The AAUP statement makes it clear, for example, that tenure is, in part, a way to free educators from worries about where their next paycheck will come from so that they can focus on the process of inquiry that benefits us all. Similarly, colleges have created “think tanks” for the very purpose of an in-depth exploration and sharing of ideas. See the magnificent list provided by Harvard Kennedy School Library and Knowledge Services ; click on the links to explore the nearly endless ways colleges are supporting the practice of free speech while achieving much for the greater good.

3. Supporting Those Engaged in Exercising Their Rights
Perhaps because universities are so closely tied to the very foundation of our democracy, where the right to free speech was included in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” colleges have often supported others engaged in exercising their right to free speech. For instance, the recent Occupy Wall Street movement has included activities like the “teach-ins that took place a few months ago on 70 college campuses across the U.S. One of the organizers, Natalia Abrams, stated: “The whole idea behind the teach-ins is to bring students and their teachers together to start talking about not just the issues, but some answers. This is all about gaining momentum and building consciousness.”

Clearly the need to protect and preserve this time honored tradition of free speech on college campuses against any threat should be a priority in our nation. Higher education may be expensive, but its role in protecting your First Amendment rights is priceless!

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