State universities advance free speech


John Hood Columnist


A couple of months ago, I wrote a column that outlined emerging threats to freedom of speech on college campuses — and noted with alarm that few of North Carolina’s public or private universities had taken the necessary steps to ensure even a basic level of protection for students, faculty, and visiting speakers.

I am pleased to report that the situation has improved significantly since I wrote that earlier piece. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) assesses the rules and procedures that protect, or fail to protect, free speech on campus. Just a few months ago, only one of the campuses in the University of North Carolina system — Chapel Hill — was given a green light in FIRE’s rating system. Most received yellow lights, while four campuses got red lights for failing to provide meaningful protections.

Several UNC campuses contacted FIRE to find out what they needed to do to address the problem, and then took action to remove their intrusive speech codes. As of late June, only one institution in the system, the School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, still has a red-light designation.

Five campuses — UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Greensboro, UNC-Charlotte, North Carolina Central, and East Carolina — now have green lights. That’s fantastic! The other 10 universities are rated yellow, which in a couple of cases is still an improvement.

Among private campuses in North Carolina, the free-speech leader is Duke University, with a green light. On the other end of the spectrum, Wake Forest University and Davidson College are blinking red. While First Amendment protections of freedom of speech, press, and assembly don’t apply to private campuses, they should champion such practices as forming the core element of a truly liberal education.

North Carolina now leads the nation in the number of higher education institutions receiving FIRE’s top rating. North Carolinians who treasure free expression should be proud of this progress even as we continue to press other institutions to follow suit.

Why pay so much attention to this issue? Unless you are a professor, a student, or a family member of either, you may not see free speech on campus as critical. But it’s related to a broader phenomenon that you’ve surely noticed and that may be affecting you more directly — the decline of civil, constructive dialogue across political difference.

To recognize the right of some else to express a controversial point of view is not necessarily to endorse that view. To place a high value on the free exchange of ideas is not necessarily to place a high value on all of the ideas being exchanged, or to place a high level of trust or confidence in the individuals expressing those ideas.

There are at least two core arguments for freedom of speech. One is that we all have inherent rights as human beings to say (and do) whatever we please as long as we don’t violate the equal rights of others to say (and do) the same. The other, more consequentialist, argument is that if we allow and foster an unencumbered exchange of views, the “marketplace of ideas” will sort itself out over time and provide us with better answers to important questions than we could ever get by constraining the debate.

The first argument only applies to government policy. That is, in a free society no politician or bureaucrat has the legitimate power to suppress the views of others through such means as fines or imprisonment. If you come on my property and start yelling at me about Medicaid expansion or whatnot, I can have you ejected. But if you stand on your own property and yell at me, or use private means to communicate your views through spoken or printed word, my only recourses are to answer or ignore you.

The consequentialist argument, however, applies even in non-governmental settings such as private universities where the search for truth is integral to their missions. However messy or uncomfortable it may be in some circumstances, free speech is better than the alternative.

John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on the talk show “NC SPIN.” You can follow him @JohnHoodNC.

John Hood Columnist
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