It's Time for a New Free Speech Movement on Campus

As the 2014-2015 school year draws to a close, it’s worth noting a significant anniversary in higher education that’s gone largely unnoticed by the majority of the press and broadcast media. It’s been 50 years since University of California Berkeley student Mario Savio, protesting university crackdowns on political advocacy by student organizations, famously climbed the steps of Sproul Hall and gave his impassioned speech that defined the original Free Speech Movement.

“We're human beings!” he famously implored,

“There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious -- makes you so sick at heart -- that you can't take part. You can't even passively take part. And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.” 

He descended the steps a legendary hero of the left and the modern politicized university environment was born.

Since then, we’ve seen five continuous decades of increasing and unrelenting progressive policies taking root and reaching full flower in academia. The result, unfortunately, is anything but “free speech.” Instead, we have achieved the absolute antithesis of what Savio once championed: the enforcement of political correctness, speech codes, trigger warnings, free speech zones, safe zones, and the suppression of arbitrarily-labeled “hate speech” or anything that supposedly offends someone or deviates from the current hegemonic political orthodoxy.

In half a century, astonishingly, we’ve come full circle and achieved the exact inverse of what the Free Speech Movement claimed it intended. What began as lawless civil disobedience now exploits campus regulations to rescind from others the same rights these erstwhile campus radicals once demanded for themselves. In other words: the oppressed have become the oppressors. Talk about Freudian reaction formation!

Today, at college campuses across the country, we regularly read of bullying, intimidation, shouting down opposing points of view, and dis-invitations delivered to accomplished speakers representing unpopular views. Examples of free speech outrages in academia are legion. Here are but a mere smattering from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s legal case website: Marquette University Faculty Member Facing Loss of Tenure for Opinions on his Blog; Pro-Palestinian Group Fined for “Offensive” Political Expression; Unconstitutional Punishment of Sorority Over “Inappropriate” Theme Party; Citrus College student threatened with removal from campus by an administrator for asking a fellow student to sign a petition protesting NSA surveillance of American citizens.

Without delving into the details of these individual cases, the overriding principle is clear and sacrosanct: free speech rights exist precisely to defend unpopular speech. Popular speech, after all, needs no defending. On campuses across the country today, the freedom to speak one’s mind has been redefined as the freedom to repeat the tired, worn, passionless, approved slogans of the powers-that-be, or else.

Or else, what? The answer seems to be the sort of shame, scorn, derision, shunning, “outing” and finger-pointing that terrifies young adults desperate to fit in, and which we saw exhibited at Oberlin College last week as campus feminists hung posters naming individual students who sponsored a talk by Christina Hoff Sommers as being perpetuators of “rape culture.”

The original campus agitators weren’t afraid of the consequences of civil disobedience. Where is that same passion and courage among today’s undergraduates? College students seeking inspiration and a worthy, necessary cause to believe in and march for need look no further than the first major campus protest movement. It’s time for a new, revived Free Speech Movement on campus, to finally establish and uphold the principles promoted by the first, unfinished movement.

To combat the steady erosion of our liberties, political scientist Charles Murray, in his soon-to-be-released book By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission, argues that the time has come for citizens to reclaim their protected right through targeted acts of civil disobedience by challenging out of control enforcement by overzealous and overreaching authority, supported by the strategic use of legal defense funds. In other words, it’s time to go ahead and make a federal case of it. It certainly sounds like an idea whose time has come.

The worst part of the suppression of free speech on a college campus is that it completely subverts the process of education itself. As William F. Buckley asserted, “The antidote to bad speech is more speech.” If you don’t like what someone else has to say, by all means, refute it vociferously and eloquently, in your own words, at interminable length, if you wish. That’s how you develop your rhetorical abilities and persuade other people that your ideas have merit. Robert Frost once observed that, “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper.” If so, then the number of temper tantrums erupting on campuses nationwide indicates that few are being truly educated there.

The back-and-forth, point-counterpoint that is at the heart of the intellectual dialectic is foundational to the development of the reasoning capacity in a sound-thinking person’s mind. It’s how we sharpen our wits and come to understand the flaws of our own arguments. Students certainly don’t hone their debating skills cowering in a “safe zone” with their hands over their ears.

Without someone to play devil’s advocate, all that exists is repetition and memorization: the heart of indoctrination. This is precisely what Mario Savio and his fellow Berkeley students railed against. You can’t silence one side of an argument without silencing half of your own brain. The true meaning of liberalism is being open to considering ideas. It’s time to reclaim that spirit and launch a New Free Speech Movement on campus, to roll back the excesses of the last one and fully realize its original promise.

Mario Savio passed away in 1996, but his legacy deserves to be carried forth by this generation of college students to a fuller, uncorrupted expression. Where is today’s Mario Savio? Opportunity is calling. Underclassmen today face a prime opportunity to make higher education history again. Speak up, organize, assert your constitutional rights, and maybe future generations will be reading about your impassioned speeches in defense of the First Amendment 50 years from now, and you can join the celebrated ranks of prior patriots like Patrick Henry and Mario Savio.

Then, the dream of the original Free Speech Movement may actually be fully achieved. 

Let me conclude with Savio’s own prophetic concluding words, “-- we'll do something which hasn't occurred at this University in a good long time! We're going to have real classes up there! They're gonna be freedom schools conducted up there! We're going to have classes on [the] 1st and 14th amendments!! We're gonna spend our time learning about the things this University is afraid that we know! We're going to learn about freedom up there, and we're going to learn by doing!!”

It’s a beautiful vision. The time to act on it is now.

Bonnie Snyder is a graduate of Harvard College where she saw and experienced the suppression of free speech on multiple occasions. She is a doctor of Higher Education and the author of The New College Reality and The Unemployed College Graduate's Survival Guide.