At colleges and universities across the country, the right to speak freely faces brutal attacks on a regular basis. But the tide is turning in favor of free expression. Last week, North Carolina enacted bipartisan legislation to protect speech on campus by overwhelming margins.
North Carolina isn’t alone. Arizona passed campus free speech protections last year, and California, Michigan and Wisconsin are considering similar legislation. It’s not surprising. The furor over free speech on campus has affected people across the political spectrum—and that’s creating some unlikely bedfellows.
By now, the saga of Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, is well-known. Students at the avowed progressive school shouted down Bret Weinstein, the self-professed “deeply progressive” faculty member, after he opposed the idea of asking all white members of the campus community to leave school for a day. As racially charged protests overran the campus, images of the unrest spread across social media and even national television. In one video, protesters trapped the school president and would not allow him to use the bathroom without an escort. Weinstein told the Wall Street Journal that campus officials could not guarantee his safety.
Colleges must be places that allow for the free exchange of ideas, but schools are failing in this role. A string of speaker disinvitations has been punctuated by violent demonstrations that blocked lecturers earlier this year at Middlebury College in Vermont and Claremont McKenna College in California. At Middlebury, the response was milquetoast: some students had a letter placed in their “permanent record;” no one was suspended. At Claremont, students were suspended—some for as much as one year—or placed on probation. These two instances show how an ad hoc approach to discipline is inadequate to deal with free speech cases.
But on campus, free speech is making a comeback.
Earlier this year, Stanley Kurtz of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and researchers at the Goldwater Institute developed a model proposal to help state lawmakers protect free expression at universities—for both speakers and protesters—and ensure that all voices can be safely heard. It calls for universities to nullify restrictive speech codes and eliminate the notoriously small and isolated “free speech zones” that limit where students can debate and distribute literature outside of class.
Some university leaders agree that change is overdue. In March, Northern Arizona University President Rita Cheng challenged safe spaces, saying universities “need to provide [students] with the opportunity for discourse and debate.” In response, students protested and called for her resignation.
Protests like these imply that certain speech should be freer than others. In reaction to the proposal, the University of California-San Diego student newspaper argued that protesters are just exercising their right to express themselves. We couldn’t agree more—until those protesters block other individuals’ ability to do the same. At that point, it becomes an oppressive response inimical to free speech.
Ultimately, for campus free speech reforms to succeed, individuals on campus must be held accountable for their actions. Universities should suspend or expel those who break the law and forcibly block others’ ability to be heard. The Goldwater Institute's model makes sure that those accused of violating others’ free speech rights receive due process protections so that when students face suspension or expulsion, they can be represented by counsel and recover legal fees if a school punishes them unfairly.
These two provisions—disciplinary sanctions and due process protections—are important to adopt in tandem. Righteous indignation over disruptive protests has not kept innocent members of the university community safe. Off campus, physical and verbal abuse is subject to prosecution. The same rules should apply on campus. Likewise, protesters accused of violence should be able to present their side of the story and have legal protection.
Colleges should be places where students learn to handle difficult topics in civil debates. After all, everyone will face challenging ideas and conflict once they graduate and move into the next stage of their lives. A university’s best gift to its graduates will be to prepare them for this.
This piece originally appeared in RealClearEducation