Taking Liberties: The Need for First Amendment Education in the New Age of Student Censorship

The impact of increasing political polarization in the U.S. is nowhere more prevalent than on college campuses, where students are feeling more and more empowered to make their own voices heard and silence those with whom they disagree. Yet as vital as the former is to a democratic society, the latter could have deleterious and long-term effects.

“I think the country is incredibly divided, and in the face of such stark balkanization, people feel desperate on both sides. They feel disempowered or alienated from their elected leadership, they feel as though the political debate has spiraled out of control, and they feel threatened personally, financially, and ideologically,” says Will Creeley, JD, senior vice president of legal and public advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). “When people feel as though their backs are against the wall, they will lose patience with the idea of reasoned argument or the demands of a democratic society on both sides.”

Indicating more than a lack of patience, recently released data reveal a general shortage of knowledge regarding the First Amendment and its protections among college students. The results of a 2017 Brookings Institution survey of 1,500 undergraduates at U.S. four-year colleges and universities demonstrate a significant lack of understanding among this population when it comes to the basic tenets of free speech.

Led by John Villasenor, PhD, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, the survey was disaggregated by political affiliation, type of institution (public and private), and gender. Responses present a picture of a college population in which the majority of students believe that hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment, that it is acceptable to disrupt an offensive campus speaker by shouting over him or her, and that it is important for colleges to foster an environment where hurtful speech is prohibited.

Not surprisingly, survey responses varied significantly based on political affiliation. For example, 53 percent of Republicans and 55 percent of Independents said they believe it is better for colleges to create an open environment where students are exposed to all types of speech — including that which may be offensive or biased against certain groups — than to shield students from such viewpoints. Only 39 percent of Democrats felt the same way.

John Villasenor
John Villasenor

For Villasenor, these findings reveal the need for more dedicated training. “We should do a better job of educating students regarding the First Amendment specifically and constitutional principles more generally, and that should occur not only in college but also in pre-college education,” he says.

“I’m a big believer in the value of the marketplace of ideas,” Villasenor adds. “Campuses should be places where [you can be] exposed to a diverse range of ideas, subject those to debate and analysis, and through that process, be in a better position to form, adapt, and articulate your own views.”

However, people from marginalized groups and identities — those who Creeley says stand to benefit the most from First Amendment protections — are often exceptionally cautious of its application. “One reason why folks are skeptical of the First Amendment is that they feel it doesn’t apply to them,” he says. “So when they hear the argument … [that it] protects all of us, they don’t believe it; their experience is that it protects some of us more than others.”

At an event at the College of William & Mary (W&M) in September, for instance, students affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement protested a speech by Executive Director of the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Claire Guthrie Gastañaga; the ACLU, they claimed, hides behind “the rhetoric of the First Amendment” to defend white supremacists. Chanting phrases such as “ACLU, free speech for who?” and “Your free speech hides beneath white sheets,” students effectively shut down Gastañaga’s talk.

Although W&M President Taylor Reveley published a statement on the college’s website denouncing the students’ actions and reaffirming the university’s commitment to free expression, Gastañaga said the incident is representative of a “national trend that is challenging campus leaders across the country.”

“The urge to censor is a very old human desire,” Creeley explains, “and when someone is saying something to you that you hate, it is understandable that you would want them to stop.” But, he notes, the First Amendment serves a vital purpose when it comes to ensuring other civil liberties and achieving social change.

“People have to recognize their friends where they are, and a group like Black Lives Matter has no better friend than the First Amendment. [It] is a guarantor of other rights. It guarantees their right to speak out against systemic racism or historical inequities or police brutality; it protects their right to protest in Ferguson, in Baltimore, in New York, in Minnesota, wherever police abuse is occurring; it protects our right to flood the airports to protest President Donald Trump’s travel ban,” says Creeley. “The law, if vigorously pursued, will protect us all.”

Improving Civic Education
While incidents such as the one at W&M further illustrate the need for more education around freedom of speech, Creeley says that the timing of such training can play a role in its effectiveness. “[There’s] the old adage of an ounce of prevention possibly being worth a pound of cure,” he says. “When a white supremacist is coming to campus and people like myself are saying, ‘The best thing to do is not to censor this person, … but instead, let them say their peace and learn how to combat their arguments via reason, or simply just ignore them’ — that’s a harder message in the heat of the moment than it would have been prior, when we can discuss the foundational value of the First Amendment and set forth the reasons why we protect the thought we hate.”

Yet such preemptive efforts are not always possible, nor do they always make an impact or reach all members of the campus community — as was the case at W&M. According to Suzanne Seurattan, director of news and media at W&M, the college made a point to regularly engage students in thinking critically about the First Amendment.

“Even before Sept. 27, we looked for opportunities to educate and raise awareness among our students about the importance of free speech, thoughtful dialogue, communicating civilly, and remaining open to listening to someone else’s thoughts or ideas even if you disagree with them,” explains Seurattan.

Many seem to agree that some form of education — regardless of whether or not it is in response to a campus incident — is better than none.

Elizabeth Beaumont leads UCSC’s Understanding the First Amendment workshop in January.
Elizabeth Beaumont leads UCSC’s Understanding the First Amendment workshop in January.

At the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), faculty and administrators sought to improve the campus community’s knowledge of freedom of speech via a November workshop that provided a historical, philosophical, and legal overview of the First Amendment. For the keynote speaker Elizabeth Beaumont, PhD, associate professor of politics and director of legal studies at UCSC, one of the key objectives of this programming was to address the intersection of free speech and diversity.

“My goal was to talk about the need for free speech and the importance of [it] for all of us, including and sometimes especially for people in groups that have lacked power or groups that have faced exclusion or oppression,” says Beaumont. “I was really concerned about the binary framing that seems to have come out recently that either you are for free speech or against it, and that if you’re a champion of free speech, then you are someone who doesn’t respect diversity, equality, and inclusion, and vice versa. So I really wanted to point out how that binary is very problematic, especially on college campuses, where both [principles] are really crucial.”

Attended by more than 100 members of the UCSC community, the Understanding the First Amendment workshop provided a space for not just undergraduates to learn about and discuss First Amendment protections, but also faculty, staff, and graduate students. “[This] isn’t just on students,” says Teresa Maria Linda Scholz, PhD, campus diversity officer for staff and students. “It’s on all of us as a campus community to understand not just the First Amendment, but some of the issues that this brings up for our campus community as well — as it relates to hate speech, but [also] diversity and viewpoint.”

Beaumont agrees, adding that university administrators and the campus as a whole also have a responsibility to “speak to the values of the university” when issues arise. “I think just telling people that we need to respect free speech rights is not nearly enough, especially the people who are most likely to feel that free speech is being used to denigrate, insult, or offend them — to tell them that the answer to free speech is more speech is not sufficient,” she explains. “There needs to be a sense of a shared responsibility for how we respond when we see speech being used in ways that we think is problematic.”

At UCSC’s workshop in November and a subsequent one in January — where attendees were assigned seats to facilitate authentic roundtable discussions — Beaumont offered examples of creative and effective ways in which individuals at other institutions have confronted offensive speakers rather than shutting them down. Participants then had to react to these situations and, at the end, present a report to the entire group.

Teresa Maria Linda Scholz
Teresa Maria Linda Scholz

“The ultimate goal was to have a campus conversation in a productive way about the First Amendment without accusation or blame,” says Scholz. “[We wanted participants to be aware of] some of the challenges that staff, faculty, students, and administrators face with understanding not just the First Amendment, but also how to respond when … hate speech is sprawled across campus — because we are all in this together.”

Valuing Free Speech
Although he is always aware of the fact that First Amendment protections look different based on who you are, Creeley says that silencing speakers doesn’t actually alter their convictions or address the issue. Thus, he is concerned about the recent trend on U.S. college campuses toward students demanding that certain viewpoints not be allowed to be heard.

“It may signal that they have given up in some way on the power of their own argument and are now choosing to resort to censorship,” Creeley says. “What I try and remind students of … is that censorship may work in the finite space of a university campus, but in the larger world, where you will find many folks who disagree with you, it may not be the panacea that you thought; you may find yourself being censored. It is not out of the question, for example, to imagine the president of the United States declaring Black Lives Matter a domestic terrorist group.”

What is more difficult but important to understand, he says, is “why censorship is ineffective, counterproductive, and ultimately a threat to one’s own speech.” This idea is particularly critical for colleges to teach and students to understand as they graduate and move into leadership positions.

“I think that if we don’t prioritize civic education and the importance of exercising our rights, they will be all the more easily taken away,” says Creeley, “and there will be an increased retreat into spheres or circles where we only talk to people who agree with us.”

UCSC is attempting to prevent such a crisis from occurring. In addition to holding a second iteration of the Understanding the First Amendment workshop, the university hosted a similar training for resident assistants as well as an event with staff, led by Scholz, about communicating across difference. It is Creeley’s hope that more and more colleges and universities, seeing both the immediate and long-term value in improving students’ — and the rest of a campus community’s — understanding of the First Amendment, will begin offering this type of education.

“It is important for schools to teach students that part of the learning experience is encountering ideas that you disagree with and that you [don’t] have to walk away agreeing with somebody,” says Creeley, “but that you are capable of growth by encountering ideas that you don’t like, that being offended is often part of the process of education.”

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article was published in our March 2018 issue.