Get thought police off college campuses

Protesters halted a speech by former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo at UNC in 2009 in which he was to oppose in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.
Protesters halted a speech by former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo at UNC in 2009 in which he was to oppose in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. 2009 Daily Tar Heel file photo

With hundreds and thousands of young people graduating from colleges across the country during the coming weeks, many of them will have an opportunity to hear from fascinating commencement speakers. Keynoting UNC Chapel Hill’s commencement over the past weekend, for example, was Anne-Marie Slaughter, who has written extensively about women’s evolving opportunities in the workplace.

Slaughter’s ideas may seem uncontroversial to some students. Others, however, may have significant disagreements or even feel offended by them. So how do we find a solution that works for everybody?

As President Obama noted in another commencement speech last weekend, many campuses across the country, including in North Carolina, have chosen the wrong answer: undermining the freedom of speech. These violations range from disinviting speakers, banning certain language, and the creation of “free speech zones” – small, confined areas where students must go to use their First Amendment rights.

We don’t need free speech zones. The entire university system – and indeed the whole country – should be a free speech zone.

A recent survey by the Knight Foundation found that over half of college students felt “the climate on campus prevents some from saying what they believe because others might find it offensive.” Another recent survey of policies at 440 American universities, conducted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), found that almost half adopt policies seriously infringing students’ First Amendment rights.

That includes many schools in the University of North Carolina system, including UNC Charlotte, which FIRE issued a mediocre “yellow light” rating, meaning the school maintains a number of restrictive speech policies. Students at N.C. State were recently asked to obtain permission before handing out fliers expressing religious speech.

Our universities are expected to be bastions of free expression and marketplaces of ideas, but instead often feel like they’re patrolled by thought police. Learning and understanding the world requires exposure to a wide range of ideas, including those one may find offensive.

The real solution to offensive speech is simple. As President Obama said, “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.”

Schools must enshrine and protect the flow of ideas – and the speech that conveys them. That’s why the UNC system should adopt principles from the University of Chicago’s 1967 Kalven Committee Report and Yale’s 1974 Woodward Report, which called for universities to use all reasonable policies to protect the widest diversity of ideas and expression on the campus.

Legislators can also help make this happen. They should explore pilot legislation requiring public universities to protect free expression, as well as take steps to balance speakers’ right to be heard with students’ rights to protest. Although students shouldn’t be allowed to shut down and disrupt a speech, they have the right to speak out against it. Any legislative fix or campus policy must walk a careful balance to enhance and preserve universities as marketplaces of ideas.

Even the best ideas and principles – freedom of speech included – were at one point considered controversial. We must never stop fighting for everyone’s right to discuss them.

Anna Beavon Gravely is the North Carolina state director of Generation Opportunity and formerly director of field operations with N.C. Family Action.