Freedom of speech ranks chiefly among the civil rights protected by the First Amendment.The founders recognized that a free society must be allowed to grapple with conflicting ideas and viewpoints in order to flourish. Students have been taught the significance of free speech for centuries and American society has counted on educators to ensure the next generation of citizens are well equipped to handle opposing viewpoints. The great tradition of schools and universities being bastions of free speech and civil discourse has been ingrained in the American psyche and upheld by academics and administrators alike, until recently.
With the advent of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter many institutions of education have sought to utilize these new mediums to better service their students and communities. Some, however, have used the new platforms as an Orwellian device to monitor students’ personal convictions, often expressed outside an academic setting. High schools, once the place where Americans were trained for the realities they would face in the “real world,” are now cracking down on dissenting viewpoints in an alarming way and raising serious constitutional questions regarding students’ First Amendment rights.
Recently, schools have been reprimanding students for “liking” content on various platforms. Not only are school officials claiming the authority to punish students who create controversial content they are going a step further and pursuing students who simply “like” the posts. In an egregious miscarriage of justice, high school students from California to Ohio have been removed from their schools for simply “liking” content created by their peers. High schools students’ rights to free speech are protected under Tinker v. Des Moines with narrow exceptions that allow administrators to restrict students speech if it becomes disruptive or threatening to classmates. The danger comes from school administrators who abuse their authority to punish students for attitudes that do not fall in line with their own.
Even more unsettling than high school restrictions are college administrators taking action against students for social media usage that runs counter current to prevailing campus dogma. In a recent case that has drawn action from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) officials at Cleveland State University have begun reprimanding students who post, like, or share what they consider problematic content. Most troubling is the open recognition that several of the posts in question, which are more than two years old, are inherently political speech.
Not all universities are as open about their intentions as Cleveland State, however, as a number of schools are now instituting what they call “bias response teams” to ensure emotional trauma is minimized. In what can only be described as a plot device straight out of 1984 students at The Ohio State University are encouraged to report on their friends and neighbors electronically for espousing viewpoints online, or in person that might be considered biased. By relying on students to turn each other and act essentially as thought police OSU is chilling free speech on campus and clamping down on discourse without even having to formally take action.
Although many of these anti-bias programs start with the best of intentions, such as the recently construed program at the University of Maryland , college administrators fail to recognize the long term effects they cause on a student population. Students may exist in a perpetual state of fear, afraid to explore new ideas and challenge long held beliefs for fear of being reported by their peers to the bias police, or even worse get labeled as some form of bigot.
Simply because technology advances schools do not gain new authority to police the thoughts and convictions of students. Freedom of speech must be protected on all platforms, even if used to promote horrific and unjust viewpoints. Doctrines of all stripes must be allowed to grapple with one another in the open, both on and offline. As Milton timelessly put; “Let [truth] and Falsehood grapple; whoever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”