Opinion

Where Are The College Presidents Who Still Respect The First Amendment?

Jim Huffman Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School

The Daily Caller reports that Brittany Mirelez, a student at Paradise Valley Community College (PVCC) in Phoenix, Arizona, has filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming that the college violated her First Amendment right to free speech. Mirelez had set up a table in the college’s ‘free speech zone’ without the required permit. The DC reports that the ‘free speech zone’ consists of 0.26 percent of the campus and that permits must be acquired two days in advance.  

On the legal merits, Ms. Mirelez has a strong case. Under Supreme Court precedent the college can regulate the time, place and manner of speech, but such regulations must: 1) serve an important governmental interest unrelated to the suppression of the particular message, 2) be narrowly tailored to serve that interest, and 3) allow for ample alternative means of communicating the message. PVCC may well have had no objection to the content of Ms. Mirelez’s message, but their restriction surely fails the latter two parts of the test. The very idea of a “free speech zone” within the vast public space of any college campus should be rejected as per se contrary to the values served by the First Amendment.  

It is not difficult to imagine what the college will claim to be its legitimate interest in restricting free speech to a tiny part of the campus. As would almost every other institution of higher education in the country, PVCC will surely assert that it seeks to protect the sensitivities of those who might take offense or suffer hurt from spoken words or other forms of expression and to avoid any resulting disruption. And by requiring permits two days in advance, the college can issue trigger warnings to those who might inadvertently find their way into the free speech zone.

Good for Ms. Mirelez for pressing her complaint in court. But sadly, a lawsuit filed by a freshman at a community college is not likely to have much effect beyond the Phoenix campus. If Mirelez prevails in court, PVCC will be ordered to make some changes to its free speech policy, but the rest of higher education will hardly notice.

What is desperately needed is some leadership from the faculties and administrators of colleges and universities. Where are all of the 60s liberals who disrupted campuses in defense of free speech? Today’s liberals disrupt their campuses in pursuit of even greater restrictions on free speech. Where are the college presidents willing to stand up for the free and open exchange of ideas that should define every institution that claims to be part of higher education. With rare exceptions (see the University of Chicago and Purdue University as examples), college and university presidents are more concerned with making their students feel good than with demanding that students earn their degrees by learning what they may not want to know.  

Our colleges and universities are obsessed with achieving diversity. That goal is so important that the University of Texas has just argued in the United States Supreme Court that an admissions process in which race is a factor is justified by the objective of having a diverse student body. Yet colleges and universities across the country impose limits on free expression that undermine the central purpose of recruiting a diverse student body – learning from those with different opinions and experiences.

American universities and colleges have long been the envy of the world. Students still come from every corner of the planet, but our institutions of higher learning are living on borrowed time. By turning our campuses into safe zones where students can avoid facing the realities of human history and are protected from exposure to the sometimes uncomfortable conditions of social existence, our college and university faculties and administrators are undermining the very foundations of American higher education.  

Restrictions on free expression stifle learning. Student protected from the views of others by what amount to campus-wide safe zones only will learn how to live and function in a safe zone. And there are not a lot of safe zones out in what academics often call the real world. Learning is hard. Learning is sometimes painful. The farther our colleges and universities progress (actually regress) down the road of making life emotionally and philosophically comfortable for their students, the more distant they are from providing a meaningful and useful education.

It’s long past time for faculties and administrators to just say no to all the whining and yes to education.