Teaching Free Speech

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Speech teaser.jpgExpression on campus and anywhere in the public sphere has gained renewed urgency - understanding it, championing it, responding to it. A Chronicle of Higher Education writer weighs in with an important point - College Is Too Late to Teach Free Speech:

How do young adults arrive on campus with so little appreciation of free expression and the First Amendment? But the better question is: How could they have gained such an appreciation when their previous schooling did nothing to instill it and a lot to undermine it? Worse still, most colleges do little, if anything, to remedy that ignorance. Indeed, with speech codes sometimes stricter than those of public schools, colleges only reinforce students’ ignorance of, if not disdain for, crucial free-speech principles.

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The Constitution requires more resilience from K-12 students than those college codes expect of undergraduates, and more than some of today’s college students expect of themselves. It asks students, whether they’re 6 or 26, to use the traditional constitutional responses to vile speech: Walk away, don’t listen, or respond, as Justice Brandeis famously advised, with more and better speech. When schools violate the speech clause by punishing group disparagement and the use of slurs, they not only abuse their power but also mislead students into thinking that the state will use its coercive powers to shelter them from abusive words in the future. That gives them false expectations for later in life, and ill-prepares them to respond to offense and abuse when it happens, whether from a colleague, a stranger on the street, or an ideologue on TV.

It’s crucial to note that none of this renders schools powerless to respond to intentionally hurtful speech. Nothing stops officials, whether at public schools or public colleges, from promoting sensitivity, tolerance of difference, and civil behavior. And nothing keeps them from finding ways to turn volatile moments that divide communities into teachable moments designed to educate students while expanding speech rather than curtailing it.

For better or worse, our civic education takes shape (or doesn't) at the K-12 level. Post-secondary education is of a different order of engagement and capacity, but it must have some fundamental understanding to build upon. The most dangerous form of illiteracy is that of how government works. Thanks to all the elementary, middle and high school teachers who are awakening minds with the power of citizen participation and responsible today. and Everyday.

Image: graphic by André da Loba for The Chronicle Review