The famous case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) set the standard for free speech in education. In this case, the Supreme Court famously stated: “Students and teachers do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech at the schoolhouse gates.” However, in recent times higher education has become a battleground for free speech.
Many stories are of conservative students who claim they face censorship. Such claims include administrations prohibiting conservative speakers, preventing conservative student organizations from forming on campus, and defunding conservative student organizations. In some cases, a student group may be asked to pay an exorbitant amount of money for security for a speaker—in effect a denial of the speaking opportunity.
Elsewhere, some conservatives claim there are limits on free speech in the classroom because a majority of professors promote liberal teachings through their pedagogical approaches. Data provides evidence that there is an overwhelming amount of Democrat-affiliated professors compared to Republican-affiliated professors. According to a Bloomberg opinion piece, a survey represented that 51 out of 66 highly ranked liberal arts colleges had major political discrepancies in various social science fields. Religion professors were 70-1 in Democrat to Republican affiliation, philosophy, history, and psychology were 17-1, and political science is 8-1. Another article provided by the National Association of Scholars found that close to 40 percent of the top ranked liberal arts colleges have no registered Republicans.
Lastly, some universities are implementing “bias reporting” systems through which students can report “bias-related” incidents. To use one example, Georgetown University states: “The term ‘bias related’ refers to language and/or behaviors which demonstrate bias against persons because of, but not limited to, others’ actual or perceived: color, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity and expression, national origin, race, religion, and/ or sexual orientation.”
“[H]owever, that just because the expression of an idea or point of view may be offensive or inflammatory to some, it is not necessarily a bias-related incident,” the university states.
How do these issues affect freedom of speech?
A public university, as a government body, has an obligation to uphold free speech rights of students. Public universities must be viewpoint-neutral, meaning they cannot discriminate based on the message that is put forth. For example, a university cannot ban conservative groups while allowing liberal groups, or vice versa. Private universities are not government bodies and don’t have the same obligations.
Is there a “right” to have professors teach a course a certain way? No, though certainly a university should encourage the free exchange of ideas in a classroom.
Lastly, “bias” reporting systems are cause for concern. These systems often allow anonymous “reports” to be sent to administrators or other university officials. While the university may say they don’t consider offensive views to be necessarily biased, the mere existence of the system may create a chilling effect on speech. Students (or faculty) may be afraid to voice or investigate unpopular views for fear of being put through an administrative proceeding—even if they’re eventually found “not guilty.”
A May 2019 Knight Foundation report found that 51% of students said that shutting down speakers or trying to prevent them from talking was “always” or “sometimes” acceptable. The organization previously found that 61% of college students believe the campus climate has prevented people from speaking their minds.
In light of this, it’s more vital than ever that universities uphold their role as a place for the free exchange of ideas.