Libertarian Students Are Leading The Fight For Free Speech On Campus

Elliot Engstrom Lead Counsel, Civitas Institute
Font Size:

As students return to campus for the fall semester, they arrive at an American university in transition.

For decades, the American college campus has been a fortress of leftist thought. Within the classroom, professors teach the wisdom of modern liberalism. Outside of class, anti-establishment student groups routinely face red tape and onerous speech codes. There has, by design, been no place for ideas that run contrary to the accepted political narrative.

American universities certainly still lean left. But for liberals, an important piece of the fortress is chipping away.

A diverse collection of students and activists has launched an all-out assault on campus speech restrictions. This coalition includes conservatives, libertarians, and even leftists dedicated to the free and open expression of ideas. And today, this coalition is winning.

When the Boise State University chapter of Young Americans for Liberty planned a pro-Second Amendment event on campus, the school demanded they pay a $465 “security fee” or have their event cancelled. A coalition including the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the Idaho Freedom Foundation, and the American Civil Liberties Union quickly forced the school to back down, resulting in a refund of the fee.

The University of Georgia limits political expression to “free speech zones” making up less than one percent of the campus area. When students displayed a sign bearing our colossal national debt in an unapproved location, the school demanded they disband their protest. In another time, this would have been the end of the matter. But as of this summer, there is a lawsuit pending against the school.

In December of last year, the University of Michigan denied the school’s YAL chapter funding from mandatory student activity fees due to the group’s “political” nature. Meanwhile, other student groups were using such fees to put on blatantly political and religious events. The students teamed up with the Alliance Defending Freedom to sue the University of Michigan, resulting in a $14,000 settlement and an improved speech policy.

In April, students at the University of Hawaii at Hilo handed out Constitutions at a student organization fair — until they were ordered to stop by campus officials. Handing out such “literature” was not allowed outside of designated free speech zones. The chapter has partnered with FIRE to sue the school, and the restrictive “free speech zone” policy has been suspended while the lawsuit proceeds.

But this movement is far more than a handful of judicial rulings. In fact, consistent victory in the courts is a symptom of a changing campus. More than ever before, college students are turning away from statism, choosing instead from a wide range of liberty-leaning campus organizations.

Young Americans for Liberty now has over 500 chapters at as many college campuses. Students for Liberty’s network reaches not just every state, but every inhabited continent. The Leadership Institute continues to train thousands of students on how to advocate for conservative causes. Organizations like the Network of Enlightened Women and the Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute prepare young conservative women to lead on campus and beyond.

These organizations do not agree with one another on everything — not by a long shot. But they are all united in their belief that our universities should be marked by free expression rather than red tape and speech codes.

To be clear, there absolutely is a place for leftist ideas at universities, precisely because there is a place for all ideas at universities. The American university should be an open marketplace of thought. If leftist ideas are truly superior to their conservative counterparts, they should not need the protection of speech-suppressing laws and academic red tape. They, along with all other ideas, should have the chance to rise and fall based on their merit.