Free speech on college campuses is about education, not legislation

Students, Classroom, Education, College

Ken Paulson, president of the Freedom Forum Institute’s First Amendment Center, testified at a recent Congressional hearing on First Amendment rights on college campuses.

Last week, my First Amendment Center (FAC) colleague, Ken Paulson, testified at a Congressional hearing on First Amendment rights on college campuses.

Paulson, president of the FAC, also serves as dean of the College of Media and Entertainment at Middle Tennessee State University and is the former editor-in-chief of USA TODAY.

Below are excerpts from Paulson’s testimony, in which he made the case that on most U.S. campuses, the oft-cited collegiate conflict over free speech rights is not happening:

“My move into academia was actually a late career decision. My years in American journalism were gratifying and this felt like the opportunity to get back. Being on a campus over the past five years has been both rewarding and eye-opening.

“I have to admit I initially looked at our students as a generation similar to my own. Externally we certainly were — dirty blue jeans worn daily. I struggled to stay alert during early morning classes and [tried] every possible combination of hairstyle and facial hair. But I quickly discovered this is an entirely new generation. They’re the Google generation. Young people for whom answers have always been milliseconds away. They’re amazing multitaskers, but there’s a drawback to the ‘Google-it’ culture.

“If you can always access information, you don’t have to memorize it or even think deeply about it. That’s particularly the case with America’s most fundamental freedoms. To be clear, I deeply admire the work of watchdog organizations like the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education, who through a combination of watchfulness, litigation and publicity shine a light on college campuses where administrators and sometimes students pay lip service to freedom of speech. The work they do is invaluable.

“But I also must tell you that when I see…news stories about students shouting down speakers or college administrators engaging in heavy-handed tactics, I don’t see my own campus. Seventy percent of the students at Middle Tennessee State University are the first in their families to attend college. Their concerns are paying for school, staying in school and making good enough grades to get a job when they leave. That’s a dynamic you will find at universities all over America.

“As part of my First Amendment work, I traveled on average to maybe a dozen campuses a year for the past 20 years and I honestly don’t believe that there’s an epidemic of suppression or intolerance in the nation’s universities. I do see some high-profile instances where college administrators and students are willing to bend free-speech principles to prevent hurt feelings or ideological conflict. Somewhere over the past two decades, the land of the free has become the home of the easily offended.

“There are some who see free-speech limitations and ask for Congress to do something. But with all due respect, this is not about legislation. This is about education. You can’t shout down a speaker if you truly understand how diversity of opinions have bolstered our democracy. You can’t censor students or their media if you understand what Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and the first generation of Americans meant by freedom of the press. You can’t try to zone protests off-campus if you truly appreciate the value of petition and assembly.

“But too many of our students and sadly, their parents and grandparents, don’t truly understand these core American principles. The First Amendment Center survey showed that a full third of Americans cannot name a single freedom in the First Amendment and only 2 percent can name all five. I won’t put you on the spot this morning.

“Having the right to say whatever we want does us no good if no one is willing to listen. The most American of values are in the First Amendment. It’s not a coincidence that the most vibrant, ambitious, strongest, most dynamic country in the history of the planet is also the most free.”

Paulson told the committee that any and all who influence student lives at any point in their academic careers “have two overriding obligations” — developing great professionals and “to graduate great citizens who understand what this nation is all about.”

“America is depending upon us,” he said.

Lata Nott is executive director of the First Amendment Center of the Freedom Forum Institute. Contact her via email at lnott@freedomforum.org, or follow her on Twitter at @LataNott.

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