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Misconceptions about Free Speech Begin before College

John Samples

Autumn brings another host of freshmen to their respective
universities to grapple with unfamiliar and often deeply
challenging ideas. While college campuses have increasingly become
fraught fronts in our nation’s totalizing culture war,
American parents trust that a high school education has equipped
their children with all the civic knowledge required to engage
responsibly with a world of new — and sometimes deeply
offensive — ideas.

Such trust is unwarranted. College students often seem
uncomfortable with, if not hostile to, unorthodox ideas, yet the
crisis of free speech does not begin at the university. A 2016
survey of high school teachers and students found that only 45
percent of students agreed that “People should be allowed to
say what they want in public, even if it is offensive to
others,” and only 43 percent concurred with the statement
that “People should be allowed to say what they want on
social media, even if it is offensive to others.” A scant
majority of teachers would allow these forms of offensive
speech.

Those concerned by the
state of free speech on college campuses should look to the dismal
state of free expression in American high schools, where students
are routinely treated to a multiyear lesson in the value of
quashing expression.

Such opinions contravene free speech. Americans have a right to
say what they please, even if it’s offensive. First Amendment
expert Jeffrey Herbst notes that young people appear to have a
different understanding of free speech that is essentially
“the right to non-offensive speech.” Mr. Herbst thinks
elementary and high schools inculcate a respect for diversity
understood as “Don’t say things that could hurt
others.”

That’s good advice for life, but not for constitutional
law. Most people find some political expression objectionable.
Recognizing an “offensive speech” exception to the
First Amendment would prohibit a lot of valuable speech.

Kids learn from experience as well as from books, and their
experiences all too often suggest that order trumps freedom. A half
century ago, the Supreme Court recognized that “students do
not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or
expression at the schoolhouse gate.” The Court ruled that
several young Iowans could not be punished by their principal for
wearing a black armband to protest the Vietnam War.

But the Court only offered protection to nondisruptive speech, a
category that subsequent courts have shrunk to include only the
most milquetoast of expressions. Students have faced punishment for
wearing clothing celebrating the United States Marine Corps,
questioning President George W. Bush’s fitness for office,
proclaiming that “Black Lives Matter,” and bearing an
image of Old Glory. All were prohibited because printed images or
words could provoke disruptive conversations between students.

High schools also have nearly unlimited power to censor student
speech that is or appears to be sponsored by the school. School
officials can control the output of student newspapers and student
election campaign materials. This power is wielded to ensure that
student papers and elections are completely free of the sorts of
controversies common in their real-world equivalents, grossly
limiting the value of these exercises.

School administrators have exercised prior restraint over school
newspaper articles concerning student drug use, teen pregnancy and
the dismissal of favored teachers. In one particularly egregious
case, a student paper was shut down in its entirety for reporting
on the death of a student injured in a school wrestling match.
Anything that might provoke uncomfortable discussion between
students, teachers and parents — or might diminish the
school’s reputation — seems fair game for censorship. Student
electoral speech faces similarly arbitrary restrictions, appeals to
religion — even in jest — are prohibited, and
candidates have been barred from running due to extracurricular
Facebook posts critical of school administrators.

High schools have a higher purpose than occupying the time of
young people and keeping them out of trouble. We require our
children to attend school because we expect the experience to
cultivate the sorts of values required to be good democratic
citizens. We encourage students to publish newspapers and hold
elections not because they are enjoyable, but because we believe
that these activities will prepare them to publish real newspapers
and participate in actual elections. In school, as in life, such
lessons can be disruptive to teachers and objectionable to fellow
students. Avoiding both disorder and offense has fostered a
generation at best indifferent to vital constitutional values.

Students who are taught that they cannot be trusted to express
themselves freely as high school seniors are unlikely to
drastically change their expectations upon becoming college
freshmen. Teenagers told that quietude born of censorship is
preferable to uncomfortable debate will not develop the ability to
engage responsibly with perspectives they find offensive, and are
likely to embrace censorship, the preferred tactic of adults with
power over their lives. Those concerned by the state of free speech
on college campuses should look to the dismal state of free
expression in American high schools, where students are routinely
treated to a multiyear lesson in the value of quashing
expression.

John Samples,
Ph.D., is Vice President and Publisher at the Cato Institute, where
he oversees the Cato Institute Press.