On September 18, 2017, the Brookings Institution released their findings of a national survey of 1,500 undergraduate students. The results are clear: “Freedom of expression is deeply imperiled on U.S. campuses.” Half of the students who were surveyed agreed that it is acceptable to prevent a controversial presenter from speaking. One-fifth of the students agreed that violence may be used as a means to shutting down a speaker. The majority of the students surveyed did not know that “hate speech” is still constitutionally protected. The study concludes that “a majority of students appear to want an environment that shields them from being exposed to views they might find offensive.”
Clearly these students lack a fundamental understanding of the First Amendment. Their confusion might stem from a conflation of the terms “speech” and “expression.” As the survey results indicate, “freedom of expression” is the new “freedom of speech” on American college campuses. In June 2017, Brown University President Christina Paxson asserted that “the state of freedom of expression on college and university campuses is a concern, and that higher education institutions must act to protect the free expression of ideas.”
The distinction between speech and expression is critical: Animals communicate through expression, while humans have the heightened ability to communicate through speech. When an individual chooses to communicate through expression—especially violent expression—that individual taps into his animal instinct. He abandons his superior power of speech, and instead follows his base path of expression.
Expression is not inherently bad. We owe some of the world’s greatest masterpieces to expression. Vincent Van Gogh wrote in a letter to his brother Theo, “In all of nature, I see expression and a soul.” Many creative geniuses live the majority of their lives in the mode of expression. When asked in an interview about his eccentric concert performances, David Bowie responded, “It has always been my way of expressing what for me is inexpressible by any other means.” But it is important not to confuse expression with freedom of speech. The authors of the U.S. Constitution were not concerned with protecting freedom of expression. They were interested in protecting natural rights, given to all people by God. “Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government,” wrote Benjamin Franklin. “When this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved.” Freedom of speech is a natural right.
Freedom of expression, on the other hand, is not a natural right and is not protected under the U.S. Constitution. After all, “expression” is a value-neutral term that carries no constraints. (Compare this to Freedom of Assembly, wherein citizens may only assemble “peaceably.”) Any and all violence, then, may be considered freedom of expression. When an Ohio State University student ran his car into a group of students and slashed people with a butcher knife—in the name of ISIS—he was merely expressing himself.
No wonder the students surveyed by the Brookings Institution agreed that violence is an acceptable method of dealing with alternate opinions. The suppression of speech has come in the form of violence and rioting all across American college campuses with freedom of expression as its defense. When the students from the Brookings survey look around, they are greeted by Antifa riots, Berkeley riots, Middlebury riots, University of Missouri riots, and Evergreen State riots. If freedom of expression is the standard for behavior, then nothing is off-limits.