“We have but one rule - that every student must be a gentleman.”
— Robert E. Lee
A Troubling Trend: The Assault on Free Speech in Higher Education

A Troubling Trend: The Assault on Free Speech in Higher Education

By Dennis Hull ‘22 and Jack Fencl ‘22,

For hundreds of years, Americans have placed a premium on free speech. The First Amendment protects everyone’s right to freely express their opinions through speech, publication, assembly, and petition. The Founders understood that a government with unlimited ability to regulate expression had the potential to devolve into tyranny. Indeed, some of America's worst days resulted from our nation's failure to protect, among other things, the free speech rights of individuals. Conversely, many of our country's finest moments have resulted from brave and dedicated people exercising their First Amendment rights. Those heroes called attention to our collective failings and demanded change.

Unfortunately, many Americans today would rather violently threaten or even attack people who insult them or who promote ideas they don’t like. In the name of tolerance, they would have the government step in to restrict discussion of subjects they view as “hateful.” Many Americans continue to promulgate the inherently contradictory notion that we can overcome intolerance through forceful suppression of free speech. 

The value of free speech lies in the ability of rational, civil debate to discredit bad ideas and filter them out of mainstream thought. For example, sensible people do not accept or take ideas such as white supremacy or sexism seriously. Our constitutional right to free speech has allowed us to examine these ideas openly and, after careful analysis, reject them at the root. Imagine a world in which such free inquiry and discussion are coercively prohibited by the government. If that were the case, society would devolve into an Orwellian dystopia of restrictive speech codes. The government and an authoritarian elite will criminalize anything that they arbitrarily deem "hate speech." After all, the road to tyranny is paved with good intentions. 

College students must recognize the dangers inherent in limiting free speech. Fundamentally, universities should be places of open inquiry, critical analysis of ideas, and unabashed discussion. They are institutions whose primary purpose is to pursue objective truth and knowledge. Limiting any student's right to free speech is contradictory to the ultimate purpose of the university itself and restrictions on free speech of any kind limit the university’s commitment to objectivity and freedom of thought.

While free speech has historically been a treasured right, there has been a troubling trend in recent years; college campuses across the country restricted freedom of speech and expression.[1]Among other issues, campus administrators have disinvited prominent speakers for being too controversial, student organizations have been shut down for expressing political positions, professors have been investigated or suspended for voicing opinions, and student journalists have been attacked for merely doing their job. 

While violations of that nature are certainly egregious, they are by no means the only way in which colleges and universities have suppressed speech. From so-called "free speech zones" to subtle yet restrictive policies, universities across the country are beginning to violate individual rights in unprecedented ways. Students and professors alike have been punished for exercising their fundamental right to speech, and no one has been willing to take a stand and defend their persecuted compatriots from the hostile, anti-free speech mobs.

The accelerating bias against free speech on campus led us to attend a conference this summer in Philadelphia, hosted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). FIRE is a nonprofit civil liberties organization whose “mission is to defend and sustain the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities.”[2]FIRE provides legal resources to students and faculty across the country who find themselves under siege for exercising their rights. Additionally, through education and outreach, FIRE has promoted positive change on many campuses throughout the country. 

Fortunately, the tyrannical forces working to restrict speech across the nation have not taken over Washington and Lee. As a whole, our free speech rights are upheld much better than at many schools across the country. For example, W&L has adopted the Chicago Statement, which is an affirmation of the University's commitment to free and open debate. 

However, that is not to say that our policies are perfect. They are not. There are many areas in which we can improve our protection of student rights.

FIRE has developed a database rating colleges and universities on how well their policies protect student and faculty rights to speech. An institution can receive one of four overall ratings: red light, yellow light, green light, or warning.

The following categories and descriptions come from FIRE, follow the link in the footnote to learn more about them:[3]

●     Red Light- A "Red Light" institution is an "institution [that] has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech."

●     Yellow Light- A "Yellow Light"institution is an "institution whose policies restrict a more limited amount of protected expression or, by virtue of their vague wording, could too easily be used to restrict protected expression."

●     Green Light- An institution or policy receives a "Green Light" "if [its] policies do not seriously imperil speech."[4]

●     Warning- FIRE gives a Warning"when a private university clearly and consistently states that it holds a certain set of values above a commitment to freedom of speech."  

Washington and Lee is a yellow light school. FIRE has evaluated eight distinct policies at W&L that each fit into one of seven possible categories, with each receiving a rating.[5]

Our policies that have received a green light are:

●     Student Handbook: Computing Resources, Network and Email Use Policy (internet usage policies)

●     Sexual Discrimination and Misconduct Policy (harassment policies)

Our policies that have received a yellow light are:

●      Student Handbook: Social Media Guidelines (internet usage policies)

●     Student handbook: Student Judicial Council (other speech codes)[6]

●      University Facilities Use Policy (protest and demonstration policies, security fee policies)

●     Statement on Response to Bias Incidents (policies on bias and hate speech)

●     University Policy on Prohibited Discrimination, Harassment and Retaliation Other Than Sex (harassment policies)

●     Student Handbook: Statement on Student Behavior (policies on tolerance, respect, and civility)

Thankfully, none of W&L's policies have received a Red Light label from FIRE. However, as three-quarters of our speech-related policies have a yellow rating, there is certainly room for improvement. 

The main issue with our policies is that they are too vague. Although they are not currently used oppressively, several W&L policies could very well be interpreted in such a way as to restrict free speech in the future.

Free speech is an ideal that we all should defend anywhere and everywhere, especially on our campus. Censorship and suppression rarely achieve their intended goals, but almost always lead to harmful consequences that limit fundamental rights and individual freedom. The value of free inquiry and open debate cannot be ignored.

Some may claim that we are exaggerating the growing threat to freedom of speech. But history teaches us that no attack on free expression is too small to warrant a robust and principled response. George Orwell put it best when he wrote, "Threats to freedom of speech, writing, and action, though often trivial in isolation, are cumulative in their effect and, unless checked, lead to a general disrespect for the rights of the citizen.”[7]We would do well to heed Orwell's warning and remain vigorously committed to defending our most basic and powerful right: freedom of speech. 

[1]For a list of recent cases, see https://www.thefire.org/cases/


[3]For a more detailed explanation, go to https://www.thefire.org/resources/spotlight/using-the-spotlight-database/

[4]To be clear, a Green Light does not mean that a university actively supports free speech, but merely that FIRE is not currently aware of any serious threats to students' speech rights.

[5]Here's the link: https://www.thefire.org/schools/washington-lee-university/

[6]This is the one area we believe FIRE has miscategorized. "Conduct unbecoming of a Washington and Lee student" is vague, but it is intentionally so. The Honor System and unique culture of W&L helps ensure that this policy is not used to punish students for exercising their right to free speech.  

[7]"The Freedom Defence Committee" in "The Socialist Leader (18 September 1948); also inThe Collected Essays, Journalism, & Letters, George Orwell; Vol. IV: In front of your nose, 1945-1950 (2000), p. 447


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