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Why Schools Must Safeguard Free Speech

By Andy Smarick — November 13, 2018 5 min read
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The parlous state of civic debate today is making it increasingly clear that America needs to rededicate itself to the beliefs and habits necessary for sustaining a democratic, pluralistic nation. This includes fostering empathy and strenuously condemning language that incites violence, such as the monstrous event in Pittsburgh last month. But it also means protecting the vigorous exchange of divergent, even provocative, views. In recent years, debate has arisen about the state of free speech and free inquiry on college campuses, the training grounds for many of our future leaders. Every new example of safe spaces, trigger warnings, and bias-response teams and each new viral video showing undergraduates disrupting professors or invited speakers raises questions about higher education’s commitment to fostering the productive exchange of different views.

What is the role for K-12 education in all of this? Secondary schools are the pipeline for higher education, so America’s high schools could—maybe even should—be part of the solution.

Those engaged in the effort to foster and protect viewpoint diversity in higher education, however, have focused on the campuses themselves instead of looking upstream. Outside groups pressure colleges to adopt policies protecting free exchange. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which defends First Amendment rights at colleges and universities, publicly reports on campus policies and practices that inhibit discourse. Heterodox Academy (a coalition of 1,800 professors and graduate students), which promotes viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement, has produced a guide detailing which campuses are best for students seeking exposure to different perspectives.

Instead of dealing with the symptoms we see on campus, colleges should work with K-12 to address the underlying problem."

A number of colleges are, themselves, taking important steps. The University of Chicago issued a 2015 statement declaring its commitment to protecting speech, which several dozen other colleges adopted. Princeton assigned a book about free speech as a pre-read for the incoming class of 2022. Policymakers are not far behind. Multiple states have recently introduced and passed laws protecting expression on public campuses. The education committee of the U.S. House of Representatives held a hearing in September titled, “Examining First Amendment Rights on Campus,” and there are proposals to withhold federal research funds from colleges that don’t protect free speech.

Such efforts could safeguard debate and thwart the “heckler’s veto.” The hope is that by creating environments that protect expression, heated but productive discussions will ensue, and students, coming face to face with those holding differing opinions, will grow as a result.

But that forecast may be too sunny. Simply making space for contentious conversation may not be enough because many students are unprepared for contentious conversation. If a campus is stocked with free-speech-hostile students, administrators could suspend those who disrupt a lecture, but other equally indignant students could disrupt the next one. Administrators might be prohibited from punishing a student for making provocative arguments, but her classmates might castigate or shun her. Conditioned to shame dissenters and feel shame when dissenting, otherwise ambivalent students might reflexively join shunning sessions and learn to silence themselves. In essence, campus policies could throw free-speech parties, but few students might show up.

We should recognize a significant part of the problem is students arriving on campus lacking an appreciation for the value of free inquiry and the skills to productively engage in the give-and-take of a pluralistic, democratic society. A 2017 Knight Foundation/Gallup survey found when students were asked which was more important, promoting an inclusive society that is welcoming to diverse groups or protecting free speech, a majority chose the former. Students were divided between favoring and opposing discussion-limiting “speech codes,” and 61 percent believe their campus climate prevents some people from saying things they believe because others might be offended. In fact, as Jonathan Haidt, an NYU professor and co-founder of Heterodox Academy, and Greg Lukianoff, CEO of FIRE, argue in The Coddling of the American Mind, campus climates have become more unwelcoming to ideological diversity in the last few years. Young people appear to be increasingly overprotected, unpracticed at debate, and likely to associate words with violence.

Instead of dealing with the symptoms we see on campus, colleges should work with K-12 to address the underlying problem. Colleges should change their applications and admissions processes to explicitly prioritize the beliefs and skills necessary to engage in a community of differing perspectives. This could include prospective students responding to essay prompts related to viewpoint diversity; demonstrating knowledge of the First Amendment’s provisions, history, and importance; and/or signing an assurance related to free inquiry and open debate.

Higher education has an outsized influence on what high schools teach and what educators and parents encourage. Students and adults focus on AP courses, GPAs, SAT and ACT scores, and extracurriculars largely because college admissions offices make clear they care about those things. Were college presidents to announce they will only admit students who value the First Amendment, believe in viewpoint diversity, and want to have their own opinions challenged, admissions officers could immediately influence incoming classes. But the ripples would swiftly reach secondary schools, affecting course offerings, out-of-school programming, and, most importantly, history and civics standards, curriculum, and assessments.

Because of state and federal laws and a constellation of advocacy groups, high schools are constantly pressured to prioritize different things. A recommitment to teaching the virtues of viewpoint diversity might not happen absent instigation from colleges. Secondary schools might well prove a receptive audience to this nudge. A recent Education Week survey found that more than half of principals and administrators believe schools aren’t focusing enough on civics. Another survey found that citizens are not so confident that students are learning the civics topics that citizens believe to be most essential. Reform-minded college presidents and/or their governing boards should publicly declare that their campuses require curious, open-minded, politically tolerant, and emotionally robust students, and that admissions practices will be adjusted accordingly.

Parents and secondary school educators want to prepare their students for success after graduation. Campuses simply need to be explicit that “college ready” includes a commitment to sharing, protecting, and learning from different points of view.

Higher education: Help secondary education help you.

A version of this article appeared in the November 14, 2018 edition of Education Week as What Is K-12’s Role in Civic Debate?

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