Recent events on college campuses nationwide make it clear that student’s rights to free speech are in jeopardy. Campus leaders have allowed and promoted a type of Orwellian suppression of free expression that punishes deviation from specific lines of thought. Though state legislatures have made efforts to address these problems, far more needs to be done to treat the underlying disease rather than the symptoms.
Purchases of Orwell’s classic 1984 spiked during 2016’s post-election hysteria. Though popular opinion seems to believe the federal government is becoming Big Brother, I disagree. As a recent college graduate, I find that the novel better represents today’s college campus culture, in which Orwellian thought police and doublethink masquerade as protestors and political correctness. Meanwhile, progressive professors play the role of Big Brother. Intolerance is preached in the name of tolerance.
Campus administrators have turned a blind eye or ceded to the desires of whoever yells the loudest. They too have embodied doublethink by professing a commitment to free speech while also instituting “free speech zones” or indefinitely postponing previously approved speakers deemed too controversial.
By allowing safe spaces and an environment focused too heavily on political correctness, colleges and universities are failing their students, especially in the classroom. Rather than being taught to develop their own opinions, students are molded into automatons capable only of regurgitating the ideas and opinions of their professors. Students who don’t fit this mold are chastised by fellow students, professors, and even administrators. I should know; I was one student who refused to be molded.
The purpose of higher education is to prepare individuals for the real world by teaching them the knowledge and skills necessary to be productive members of society. The most important of these skills is the ability to think independently and critically, but this skill can only be cultivated in an environment where open discussions are not suppressed. Ideas—even offensive ideas—need to be countered with other ideas, not stifled or ignored. Such an environment would render safe spaces and free speech zones obsolete.
With the true purpose of higher education in mind, Colorado legislators recently passed Senate Bill 17-062. Somewhat ironically, this bill would protect students’ free speech by banning so-called free speech zones, thereby turning whole campuses into free speech zones.
SB 062 does not include disciplinary actions, such as loss of funding, should the campus refuse to comply. If college administrators and professors were not fully complying with constitutional guarantees protecting free speech before, why would they now comply with this new statute? Enforcement on campuses is virtually impossible.
Thus, the ultimate responsibility for reform lies within the schools—as it always has.
Campus administration and faculty need to make a renewed commitment to the First Amendment and to the mission of their institutions. It is ironic that the same college campuses that nurtured the Free Speech Movement of the 1960’s today are the homes of protests and outrage toward ideas contrary to popular opinion.
Furthermore, campus leaders need to practice tougher love. Their job is to develop students intellectually, not to emotionally coddle them. They need to be clear that violence will not be tolerated, and they need to end the practice of surrendering to whichever side shouts the loudest.
Responsibility for reform also lies with the students. Students of all beliefs and backgrounds need to take personal responsibility for their education by thinking critically about what they are taught. They need to ask questions and speak up when they disagree. It will be uncomfortable. But in doing so, they will be better prepared for the world waiting for them outside of the campus.
It is time to take back higher education from the grip of the Orwellian outrage culture. The future of higher education depends on it.
Cassie Morrow is an education policy intern at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver. She is a recent graduate from Chapman University in Southern California.