Student Perspective: A University’s Duty to Free Speech

Picture of blurred students sitting at a long table, an in focus professor sits at the edge of the table smiling.

Image Courtesy of University of Pennsylvania

This is an independently submitted op-ed for our Quill section. Views and statements made in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Tower.

By Thomas Saacks

In the first few months of his tenure at the Catholic University of America (CUA), President Kilpatrick expressed his belief that “the best part of a university education is the opportunity to engage with points of view we might not agree with.” This was part of his announcement for a speaker series focused on challenging student worldviews. Students largely agree with this sentiment. 

The Nonpartisan Research Organization at the University of Chicago (NORC) reported in 2023 that a supermajority of students believe a major purpose of education is “to support the free exchange and debate of different ideas and values.” Nowhere is this more important than in the classroom, where students and teachers challenge one another and grow.

However, the freedom of speech within the classroom is not guaranteed. Students and teachers need to feel safe from retaliation in order to exercise their freedom. A university that wants to provide the best education should protect a culture of free speech because free speech in the classroom is “the best part of a university education,” but the fear of retaliation prevents students and teachers from exercising their speech which requires the university to protect the speech of students and teachers.

Why is a culture of free speech in the classroom so important to a university education? Freedom of speech in the classroom is “the best part of a university education” because it provides the freedom to grow and challenge ideas, its absence fosters a stagnation in education. 

In the majority opinion of Sweezy v. New Hampshire, Chief Justice Warren identified two guiding principles on the importance of free speech to university education. 

Firstly, free speech allows for an unfiltered pursuit of knowledge and truth. He believes it is important that  “teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding.” Freedom of speech allows students and teachers to challenge ideas and further academic development. 

Chief Justice Warren also warns of the danger of an absence of free speech in a university. He claims “To impose any strait jacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities would imperil the future of our Nation” and “our civilization will stagnate and die.” A university should prevent this intellectual stagnation and therefore promote free speech.

A culture of free speech fosters intellectual development, but it needs a university’s protection to ensure its existence. If a student or teacher fears retaliation to their speech then they are incentivized to remain silent and a culture of free speech cannot exist. 

There are two groups that can retaliate against a teacher or student exercising their speech in the classroom; the university, or an independent individual or group. Retaliation from the former exists when the university takes action against a teacher or student on the basis of their speech, such as the firing of a teacher. 

A supermajority of students surveyed by NORC believes a university should protect a teacher from backlash and not fire a tenured professor for saying something people find offensive. This is because students recognize a university that fires a teacher over speech is hostile to their own expression. Such an action stifles education as people go silent to protect their livelihoods. 

The other source of retaliation is a private individual or group, such as other students or teachers at universities. Such actions include, but are not limited to, physical harm, verbal harassment, and the recording of individuals for online harassment. 

Retaliation from private individuals or groups prevents free speech in classrooms because people will not express their beliefs if it harms their well-being. Both retaliation from the university and from people prevent free speech in classrooms because people will not exercise speech when they will be harmed. Therefore, a university interested in fostering a community of free speech must protect its students and teachers.

Protecting free speech in classrooms requires a university to protect students and teachers from itself through both not taking punitive actions against speech, and holding accountable individuals or groups who retaliate against expression. For example, universities must refrain from firing teachers over their exercise of speech because it communicates to both students and teachers that free speech is not welcome and will be met with retaliation. 

Furthermore, the protection of teachers is a popular idea as survey data suggests students defend teachers who promote free speech in the classroom and prefer they remain. Instead, a university wishing to foster free speech in classrooms must protect students and teachers from itself.

In a different example, a university should take punitive action against a student who harms a fellow student, or teacher, on the basis of their speech. If no action is taken by the university it communicates to students and teachers that they will be harassed for their speech and are bullied to remain silent. 

CUA’s Student Code of Conduct provides an example of how punitive action could be evaluated and conducted, theoretically preventing students from committing physical harm, verbal harassment, and misusing unauthorized recordings. A university wishing to foster free speech in classrooms should enforce such a policy to protect students and teachers from individuals and groups. 

Freedom of speech in the classroom is paramount to a university education, but its existence requires a university to protect students and teachers from retaliation to their speech in order to foster a community of intellectual development aligned with its mission as an institution of higher education. It is therefore imperative for a university to avoid action that punishes speech and pursue action that protects students and teachers from those who wish to harm them for their speech. 

President Kilpatrick has evangelized his support for free expression since the start of his tenure. I hope the Catholic University of America will recognize its role in protecting speech, and avoid choosing inappropriate courses of action which only serve to throw away “the best part of a university education.”

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