Freedom of speech on college campuses

in Opinion by
The following is an opinion piece and does not necessarily reflect the views of The Clarion, its staff or the institution. If you would like to submit a response or an opinion piece of your own, please contact clarion@bethel.edu.
By Peter Knutson

The First Amendment is a cornerstone to American liberty. It is unique and beautiful in that it allows the individual the right to say and think as they please. It is something that must be protected and cherished.

Unfortunately, many college campuses across the United States are no longer protectors of the First Amendment. According to a 2014 report by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), 59 percent of higher education institutions have policies that infringe on First Amendment rights. Another 36 percent have “policies that over-regulate free speech on campus”.

Free speech, especially among conservative students, has been abused, stifled and suppressed. In August of 2016, Jewish conservative Ben Shapiro was banned from DePaul’s campus for “security concerns”. Shapiro argued that this ban was an attack on free speech.

“It’s both pathetic and predictable that the University is happy to grant a veto on speakers to snowflake leftists so long as the leftists threaten violence,” he argued. “This is how free speech dies: when people in power cave to the bullies rather than standing up for basic rights.”

Perhaps the most disturbing case of free speech obstruction came this February at University of Californian Berkeley. A group of around 150 masked agitators rioted in order to disrupt gay conservative Milo Yiannopoulos’s speaking event. They threw rocks at police, smashed windows, and ended up costing over $100,000 in damages. Ultimately, the event was cancelled. Perhaps the saddest and most ironic thing about this occurrence is that UC Berkeley was a leader of the free speech movement in 1964.

There will be no “safe zones” after we graduate. – Peter Knutson

This restriction and abuse of free speech has also hit close to home at neighboring college campuses. Last December, Yiannopoulos scheduled a visit to the University of Mankato. The University threw a late security fee at them, in which they argued it was needed because of anticipated protests. This raised problems due to the fact that it was not legal, and in the end they lowered the fees. This extra late security fee is not something that is uncommon, and is often used to deter free speech. In addition to this occurrence, according to a recent video on Fox News, some students at St. Olaf have felt threatened, been harassed and have even transferred or plan to transfer due to their conservative viewpoints and ideas.

While institutions do have rights to control who they want to invite to speak on campus, none of this behavior is acceptable. Free speech should be allowed, especially at institutions that pride themselves in liberal arts education. If higher education institutions claim to care about the open exchange of ideas and equip students for life after college, then they should act that way. There will be no “safe zones/spaces” after we graduate. It is not realistically possible to protect yourself from opposing viewpoints.

It is important to note what comes along with free speech. Free speech, as much as is means speaking your thoughts, also means having to hear things you may not agree with or like. It does not entitle you to not hearing someone else’s opinion. In addition to this, it is important that diversity of thought is equally valued as diversity of skin color or ethnicity.

Thankfully, at Bethel, I have felt safe to be a conservative. Even though the majority of staff, administration, and the Clarion all lean liberal, I have not felt threatened or harassed for my viewpoints. I have had numerous conversations with education professors, political science professors, and pastoral staff about ideas and politics. All of these conversations thus far have been both healthy and challenging, and I am very grateful for that.

I write this to inform and challenge the Bethel community. My challenge to the Bethel community going forward is to continue to value and protect free speech. If we want to continue to stand out as a higher education institution, we should commit ourselves to the protection of free speech for all students. This means being both open to, and critical of viewpoints and ideas we may disagree with or not like. When we do this, we will show others that we value the rights of the individual, and are properly equipping students for the realities they will face after college. I believe that meeting this challenge will strengthen and grow us as individuals, as a community, and as an institution as a whole.

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