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How to save free speech on American college campuses

The suppression of free speech is one of the more pressing concerns coming out of American colleges these days. Universities and colleges—from administrators and faculty all the way down to the students themselves—seem determined to squash even the pretense of First Amendment rights on campus. Fighting back against this tide of suppression and censorship can seem daunting if not impossible.

Yet Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, advises us to take heart and not give up.

In an op-ed at The Daily Signal, Sen. Grassley points out that “education requires that positions be held tentatively, tested by opposing arguments that are rationally considered, and evaluated”—essentially the exact opposite of the anti-speech mob mentality that dominates much of higher education these days.

“Public institutions,” Grassley writes, “must adhere to the various guarantees of the First Amendment.” The Constitution, he points out, ” does not permit arbitrary prior restraints on speech by university administrators on a case-by-case basis.” Rather, the right to free speech is a blanket one, subject only to very narrow and content-neutral restraints.

“When universities suppress speech,” Grassley writes, “they not only damage freedom today, they establish and push norms harmful to democracy going forward.”

“Little free speech would survive,” he claims, if we allowed every instance of offensive speech to be suppressed.

So what is the solution? Sen. Grassley points to measures adopted by several institutions of higher learning:

The University of Chicago has adopted a policy that some other universities have followed.

This policy prohibits the university from suppressing speech that even most people on campus would find offensive or immoral. It calls for counter-speech rather than suppression by people who disagree with speech.

And while protecting protest, it expressly prohibits “obstruct[ing] or otherwise interfer[ing] with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.”

Finally, it commits the university to actively “protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.”

This is the approach of true education as it has always been practiced. Let us hope that it takes root in more campuses, leading more students to engage in thoughtful—and free—discourse.

Grassley points to a quote from the Supreme Court to illustrate the necessity of a robust and protected culture of free speech: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics.”

Read the whole op-ed here.

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