Home » Perspective » College students: First Amendment values are key to your university experience

By Rick Mastroianni, published on August 20, 2021

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This article originally appeared in the Freedom Forum’s First Five series. Reprinted by permission.

Welcome back to school, college students. Embracing your First Amendment freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition while you’re there will enhance:

  • Your education, by challenging you to welcome diverse viewpoints;
  • Your activism, by enabling you to speak out for causes you care about;
  • Your enjoyment, by learning how to engage with the diverse people you encounter.

This is not easy, but I’m convinced you are up to the challenge, even when it’s hard:

  • A 2020 Heterodox Academy survey revealed that 62% of college students say that their campus environment prevents them from saying things they believe — up from 55% in 2019. This is especially true when hot-button topics like politics, religion, sexual orientation, race and gender are discussed. Students fear backlash from fellow students and criticism or lowered grades from professors.

  • This March, more than 200 faculty members in the U.S. formed the Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA) to uphold free speech in academia and provide legal support to faculty whose academic freedom is under attack. By May, the AFA had defended two faculty members from being sanctioned.

 “Celebration of diversity of thought in academia would go a long way toward reducing polarization in society and perceived elitism in American colleges. If we can’t celebrate it, I guess we have to litigate it.” — Lisa Blatt, Academic Freedom Alliance Legal Advisory Council member

There are some hopeful signs that colleges are battling back and renewing their commitment to First Amendment values. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) reports that an increasing number of colleges are adopting some form of the University of Chicago Committee on Free Expression’s statement, which upholds “the University’s overarching commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the University’s community.” Some colleges are also making a robust free-expression curriculum part of student orientation.

Policy measures can help, but your college education, activism and enjoyment will be enhanced when freewheeling First Amendment values are internalized, embraced, practiced and protected by students, teachers and administrators across the ideological spectrum. Only you can decide if you will use the flame of your First Amendment freedoms to offer heat and light to a troubled world or torch the whole neighborhood (figuratively speaking, of course).

Welcome diverse viewpoints

You will get more value from your investment in college if you take to heart this from the University of Chicago’s statement on free expression:

“. . . education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think. Universities should be expected to provide the conditions within which hard thought, and therefore strong disagreement, independent judgment, and the questioning of stubborn assumptions, can flourish in an environment of the greatest freedom.”

Well-meaning people prefer to limit such freedom. The threat to ideological diversity on college campuses prompted scholars Jonathan Haidt, Chris Martin and Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz to establish the Heterodox Academy (HxA) in 2015, with a mission to “improve the quality of research and education in universities by increasing open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement.” This good deed hasn’t gone unpunished by critics on the left or the right.

The organization spotlights thought-provoking scholars who push back against conventional thinking:

  • Muslim activist Irshad Manji’s essay, “White Fragility Is Not the Answer, Honest Diversity Is,” argues against shame-based diversity training. Her Oprah Winfrey award-winning Moral Courage Project “teaches young people how to engage honestly about polarizing issues rather than shaming or canceling each other.”

  • Black scholar and HxA Open Inquiry Award Winner John McWhorter’s provocative new work, “The Elect,” argues against “a particular strain of the left that has come to exert a grievous influence over American institutions, to the point that we are beginning to accept as normal the kinds of language, policies and actions that Orwell wrote of as fiction.”

You can welcome diverse viewpoints without endorsing them. The First Amendment guarantees that you get to speak your mind too.

Watch: Outrage and the brain

Our brains often go into self-defense mode when we feel our deepest beliefs are being challenged. Explore how we are wired against dialogue and learn practical ideas to plan for and navigate conflict. Watch the expert discussion here.

Speak out

The late congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis often urged students to use their First Amendment freedoms to “make some noise” to bring change, following the example he set in the 1960s with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

The Freedom Forum offers ample guides and resources to help you live out your freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition and “make some noise” to champion the causes that are important to you. Get some pointers from these students who led a national protest movement.

Enjoy new friendships

Outrage generates clicks and ratings. But you are under no obligation to buy into rancor, division or hostility. Instead, you can help usher in a new generation of campus radicals. Follow the lead of progressive professor Cornell West and conservative professor Robert George. They bridge their stark ideological differences with nearly forgotten virtues like friendship and empathy. Establishing friendships like this takes courage. You may risk being shunned by allies unwilling to engage with or learn from opposing views. The Village Square’s Respect + Rebellion project fosters such “subversive friendships” on college campuses.

Watch: The Role of Free Speech in Bridging the Blue-and-Red Divide

The Blueberries & Cherries dinner club brings people with differing political views together to connect with meaningful, humanizing dialogue. Watch a discussion with the club’s founder here.

Take a risk and make a new friend who disagrees with you. Maybe your new “subversive friend” will be a Christian like me, a Marxist, an LGBTQ activist, a conservative or progressive. But set aside unhelpful labels and be curious about the person who, I hope, is sharing a hearty meal and a cold beverage with you. Raise your glasses to the First Amendment, which makes it possible for such friendships to thrive amid our deepest differences.

Rick Mastroianni is the research and library director at the Freedom Forum. He can be reached at rmastroianni@freedomforum.org.


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