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How to get college students to appreciate free speech

In the midst of an escalating free speech crisis on campuses nationwide—with more and more students hostile toward free speech and  First Amendment rights—how can we communicate the importance of free expression to college students?

At The Daily Signal, Bruce Ashford—provost and professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary—proposes five ways to to teach college students that free speech is both critical and indispensable.

“Unless,” Ashford writes, “we want this depressing trend to continue indefinitely until free speech has been shuttered—not only on university campuses, but in coffee shops, churches, and public squares—Americans must make anew the case for free speech.”

This will not be a particularly easy task, Ashford notes; many young students these days “have been taught, from a very young age, to discourage bullying and to protect others against intolerant or offensive speech,” leaving them unaware that “free speech actually helps the very people who have been marginalized or offended by ensuring that those people can speak freely against the offense.”

Free speech, Ashford claims, is, for many younger Americans, “a very abstract right, one that many of them lack the motivation to defend.”

So how do we teach them otherwise? Ashford makes five proposals to show students the negative impacts of squelching and suppressing free speech on college campuses. Among those negative consequences:

3. It encourages hypocrisy and undermines our ability to persuade.

If free speech is suppressed, you won’t know who people really are. People who hold hateful or offensive views will hide who they are, and you’ll never be able to persuade them of the wrongness of their views.

4. It ignores the fact that social progress often depends on free speech.

Many of the ideas that most Americans cherish—such as racial and gender equality—were once considered offensive. But they are no longer considered offensive precisely because courageous American citizens were allowed to display the merits of those ideas in public discussion and debate.

5. It tilts our society in an authoritarian direction.

First, if universities are free today to ban unintentionally offensive racial expressions, they will be free tomorrow to ban any sort of critique or evaluation of social groupings. Second, ideological winds tend to change direction. Students who are eager to suppress other people’s speech may one day find their own speech being suppressed.

Ashford notes that, for Christians, the fight for free speech is particularly important: “[I]f we do not stem the tide of free speech restrictions, [Christians] might find ourselves in a situation one day where our nation’s universities and public squares keep us from speaking about that which is most precious to us,” namely, the Gospel.

“That is something,” he concludes, “upon which Christian Americans of all stripes should be able to agree.”

Read the whole piece here. 

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