Boston University


Colleges to some resemble grassy knolls where young intellectuals empty their wallets and toss Frisbees, for others, it’s a place of aggressive opinion holders who have found an outlet for constant protesting. The American higher education system is an unparalleled contributor to society and an often magnified experience of the bill of rights. On the news, you can almost always find a clip of college students protesting, but in today’s political climate it is being followed by videos of Berkeley’s glass walls being smashed with a chair or a political pundit being chased through the quad.

In an article published by Bucknell Professor Christopher Ellis, he examines the statistic that Americans wish free speech on college campuses was restricted. Free Speech is an American right granted by the first amendment, but just as there are restrictions on shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, many Americans if you should be able to shout “communist” in a college. Ellis found that a large number of Americans believe we should not restrict free speech, but when asked differently they would restrict specific radical language or ideas from spreading.[1]

This concept is detrimental to a healthy democracy. We cannot limit the spread of ideas because no matter what political leanings initiate the discussion it would still create an imbalance of power among parties to limit the words of constituents. In an article, “How to lose a Constitutional Democracy,” political scientists Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg argue that free speech is a fundamental element to advancing democratic self-governing.

Democracy dies in darkness, and it is important that we don’t cut off the outlets that ignite new and developing thinking. Schools and Universities are large contributors to a functioning democracy and represent a “robust civil society,” which alongside the first amendment, according to Huq and Ginsburg, “will work as effectual bulwarks against democratic backsliding.”[2]

According to the data collected by Ellis, each party has differing opinions on what topics should be censored on college campuses, and also they were only willing to hear opinions when it was spoken by someone from their party identity. This is undemocratic at its core because it prevents political competition and silences opposing views, it doesn’t allow for the sharing of beliefs and ideas, the main purpose of a college campus.

The opposing argument stated that speech should be restricted to create an environment safe for learning and development. But violence is not a correlated reaction to words, it is an independent variable dependent on who the listener is. If the audience members of a crowd are contributors to a democratic society they will use non-violent action to make a change and take the language of the speaker as an opportunity to learn and develop their opinions.

Free speech is a catalyst for democratic change, and it cannot be restricted in areas of ideological cultivation.

[1] Ellis, Christopher. “Analysis | Do Americans Support Free Speech on College Campuses? Absolutely. Except Sometimes.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 8 Nov. 2017.

[2] Huq, Aziz & Tom Ginsburg. 2017. “How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy.” Working Paper.

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