Weaponizing Words: How College Campuses Undermine Democratic Dialogue



For the past nine years, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has been assessing U.S. colleges and universities for their speech-related policies. There are three possible ratings: red light, yellow light, and green light.

This year, FIRE reviewed 449 schools, 345 four-year public institutions and 104 private ones. The study’s authors focused on public institutions because our public colleges and universities are legally required to protect free speech rights. So how are they holding up?

FIRE found that 39.6 percent of schools received a red light rating. That’s 178 universities and colleges in the U.S. that either have “at least one policy both clearly and substantially restricting freedom of speech” or require a university login or password in order to view their speech policy. 237 schools (52.8 percent) were given a yellow light rating.

The good news is that the number of schools that received a red light rating has gone down every year for nine years. This year it shrank by ten percent.

But while the number of red light schools is decreasing, there are still far too many whose speech codes fail to guarantee the First Amendment rights of their students. This doesn’t just violate students’ Constitutional rights; it sets up false expectations for life after college.

Students aren’t being exposed to the idea that they can withstand to hear things they don’t agree with or that offend them. They aren’t learning that there are better reactions than censorship. Instead, they are taught that ideas they don’t like should be stamped out.

Universities and colleges ought to be the ones setting an example for students of how to face these challenges. Rather than sheltering them, they should encourage students with differing points of views to engage in debate, improve their arguments, or maybe, just maybe, learn something about the other side that they didn’t know.

We live in an age where changing one’s opinions or beliefs is tantamount to heresy. But the ability to take in and synthesize new information used to be a positive sign of intellectual maturity. The more that universities censor “unacceptable” ideas, the more they promote rigidity, bias, and segregation based on political beliefs and rigid ideology.

This leads to the kinds of echo chambers we see on social media and in our consumption of news media. It makes us intolerant of people who don’t think like us, whether at work or among our friends and family. Ultimately, it divides and weakens America.

So, while colleges and universities might think they are fighting intolerance and divisiveness by banning certain types of speech on campus, in reality they are really hurting our country’s ability to come together despite its differences. That’s not just a disservice to the country, it’s also a disservice to the students these school are supposed to be educating.



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