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 redress of grievances.”
Whenever I read the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, I am struck by the distance between the American creed and American reality, a distance widening wherever I look.
If there is any venue in the United States where our ideas should flow out unrestricted, be it in the medium of speech, of press, of assembly, of protest — it is the college campus. After all, if colleges and universities are not repositories of ideas, then what are they?
In too many cases, the ideas of student activists do not flow unrestricted on college campuses. They are confined into small spaces, into so-called “free speech zones.”
In recent years, these zones have been challenged, most recently in Virginia. Last week, the Virginia Community College System agreed to suspend its student demonstrations policy in response to a lawsuit filed by Christian Parks, a student at Thomas Nelson Community College. A campus police officer stopped Parks from preaching because, among other things, he was not standing on the designated “free speech zone.”
Let’s unpack the rhetoric behind the so-called “free speech zones.” Officials proclaim students and faculty have free speech. But to maintain “order,” so certain people are not offended, or for security reasons, they must “freely speak” over there, in that small area, in that zone. Thus, these officials are also saying students do not have the right to freely speak, freely assemble, freely protest over here, on the rest of campus. On the rest of campus, they are enslaved. Or in other words, the establishment of “free speech zones” enslave speech on the remaining 99 percent of campus space.
About six in 10 colleges nationwide have policies that violate the First Amendment, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). One in six, says the foundation, enforce “free speech zones.”
However, these restrictive policies rarely live on after constitutional challenges. West Virginia University and Texas Tech abolished their “free speech zones.” Earlier this year, California’s Modesto Junior College abolished its “free speech zone” and paid $50,000 to settle a lawsuit from a student constrained from passing out copies of the U.S. Constitution on Constitution Day.
Despite the embarrassment and financial losses their peers are suffering, many public colleges refuse to stop quarantining student speech. The campus police officer that stopped Christian Parks in Virginia from preaching claimed “the content of his speech might offend someone,” according to the lawsuit.
In my estimation, more students, faculty, staff and administrators value the right of not being offended more than they do the right of free speech. I am speaking about sensitive radical and liberals just as much as sensitive conservatives.
I value free speech more than not being offended. That is why I believe the religious zealots, the homophobes, the racists, the sexists, the warmongers have as much right to speak, leaflet, assemble and protest as the queer activists, the antiracists, the feminists, the antiwar activists (and everyone in between). I probably shocked some people last year when I supported allowing White Student Unions on campuses. I am convinced though that when liberals and radicals prevent those racist or homophobic religious zealots from coming to campus they are digging their own graves. They are no different than the creators of free speech zones and the police arresting students protesting against tuition increases.
With freedom comes offensive, destructive, productive, defensive and creative speech. Anything is possible — the good and the bad, the ugly and the beautiful, the hurtful and the helpful. The truth offends. Constructive ideas offend. Defenders of normalcy offend.
The creators of free speech zones know this. Preventing people from being offended or protecting the campus body is a side issue. Restrictors of student speech are about dismembering the feared, disorderly student activist. Enslaved order is more valued than free disorder.
Give me the offensive, disorderly, unpredictable excesses of freedom any day over the enslaving, silencing, unchanging excesses of order.
Dr. Ibram X. Kendi (formerly Ibram H. Rogers) is an assistant professor of Africana studies at the University at Albany—SUNY. He is the author of The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972. Follow on Twitter @DrIbram