- - Thursday, September 26, 2019


If you had asked an everyday American 50 years ago to describe what they thought when hearing the word “censorship,” you might have gotten a description of an overzealous bureaucrat grinning as he prepared to erase the next political opponent from the morning newspaper. Today, you’ll hear about college administrators working from the comfort of their air-conditioned offices, using intimidation, tricks and managerial red tape to silence students.

While the latter is a painful and accurate description of what countless college students face every day, the truth is that the consequences of higher education’s fatal romance with censorship runs far deeper than left vs. right — and beyond graduation day.

An example of this is Jones County Junior College, located in the deeply conservative small town of Ellisville, Mississippi. Earlier this month, former student Mike Brown (an activist with Young Americans for Liberty’s National Fight for Free Speech campaign) sued the college after being dragged into the office of the campus police chief, who told Mr. Brown that he “should have been smarter” than to express his First Amendment rights without following the school’s procedures.

The “Assemblies Regulations” section of the school’s student handbook requires that students obtain “administrative approval” and wait for a minimum of three days before “gathering for any purpose” on campus.

The act that prompted the administration to take action against Mr. Brown was that of simply gathering and talking with other students about criminal justice reform — an issue of wide-reaching importance to the world outside of academia. “Some people get in trouble for smoking weed, but at Jones College, I got in trouble just for trying to talk about it,” Mr. Brown said following the incident. “College is for cultivating thought and learning and encouraging civil discourse … That’s not what’s happening at Jones College.”

With more than a half a million Americans incarcerated for drug-related offenses and more than $47 billion being spent every year in the war on drugs, issues like this are exactly what we should be encouraging young people to talk about. The students we educate today will be the ones tackling these issues tomorrow, but stripping them of the opportunity to have these conversations only robs society of the solutions that might one day come from them.

Unfortunately, abuses like this are far too common. In September 2016, at Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek, Mich., three activists were arrested by campus police and thrown in jail for handing out pocket-sized copies of the U.S. Constitutions on a public walkway. Drew Hutchinson, the school’s manager of student life, justified the action against the students by asserting that he simply wanted to “protect” them.

Setting aside the clearly dubious line of reasoning from Mr. Hutchinson, more than enough reason remains for outrage at how these students were treated. The Constitution is the very document that guarantees the right of every American (regardless of personal background or political affiliation) to gather, speak and worship publicly and peacefully; the Founding Fathers never said a word about “permission slips,” “waiting periods” or “free speech zones.”

Nevertheless, it simply isn’t possible to discuss the long-term impact of censorship in higher education without addressing its influence on the political identity of America’s youth. On nearly any given day, one can easily find a new outpouring of impassioned students decrying the Orwellianization of American academia.

With self-described “liberal” professors outnumbering their conservative colleagues by a margin of 12 to one, the idea that post-secondary education has become a mint for the mass conversion of apathetic college students into ardent leftists seems considerably less far-fetched.

According to a Harris poll from March 2019, 73.6 percent of millennials and Generation Z want government-provided “universal health care,” 67.1 percent believe “the government should provide tuition-free college” and 49.6 percent would “prefer to live in a socialist country.” Compare this with a 2018 study conducted at Smith College (a private women’s liberal arts college in Northampton, Massachusetts) that found that 81 percent of students now believe that “words can be a form of violence,” and the picture gets even gloomier for supporters of free speech.

Like most tough questions, however, answers may be found in history. With regard to freedom of speech, the civil rights movement of the 1960s is no exception. On April 3, 1968, in the last speech he would ever give, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a vigorous defense of the First Amendment, declaring that “the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.”

But imagine if the people of Memphis, Tennessee — and the entire world — had been kept from hearing what King had to say. Imagine if the Jim Crow racists had been able to simply silence him and the other leaders of the civil rights movement by throwing them in jail (as they did many times) or fighting to keep their ideas out of the minds of college students. Is it even possible to imagine how different the world would be today?

While history will look upon King with gratitude, admiration and respect, the failures of higher education to uphold the First Amendment will be recognized as cowardly and misguided. Every opportunity we take from a young person to explore a new idea (or even consider an old one differently) is not only an offense against the student themselves, but an injustice to the very society that they will soon inherit.

Only by fostering a culture of open, civil discourse will we bridge the divide splitting our nation. The first step to every form of social progress is, and always will be, freedom of speech.

• Cliff Maloney is the president of Young Americans for Liberty.

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