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Why the University Must Be a “Marketplace of Ideas”

The willingness to admit that you may be wrong and actually consider an alternate point of view is exceedingly rare, but increasingly important. In a culture of “alternative facts” and claims of “fake news,” we are no longer healthy skeptics. We are cynics. And rather than listen to another point of view, more often than not we just filter it out – and, increasingly, we see this in the form of censorship.

Former United States Supreme Court Justice William Brennan captured well the peril of suppressing speech in his opinion in Lamont v. Postmaster General (1965):

“The dissemination of ideas can accomplish nothing if otherwise willing addresses are not free to receive and consider them. It would be a barren marketplace of ideas that had only sellers and no buyers.”

But what does this have to do with university campuses?

If the U.S. is to be a society that embraces the flourishing of ideas, there may not be a more crucial place for free speech to thrive than the university.

Universities are not simply places for students to prepare for work in our economic marketplace. They’re also a place where college students learn how to interact with others in the “marketplace of ideas” – where they can encounter differing ideas and beliefs through discussion and debate.

After all, the collegiate experience is grounded in the pursuit of truth. As Robert P. George and Cornel West write, “the maintenance of a free and democratic society require[s]…intellectual humility, openness of mind, and, above all, love of truth.”

However, these virtues are often not as highly prized on campus as they should be. From unconstitutional speech zones to discriminatory club policies to even violence, United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions is right to say that “freedom of thought and speech on the American campus are under attack.”

It’s not only government officials who have been squelching speech, either. Even students often participate by shouting down speakers or using physical violence to accomplish their ends.

Recently, a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was even shouted down at the College of William & Mary as she attempted to discuss the First Amendment. How ironic.

Whether it be by college administrators, faculty, or the students themselves, there have been attempts (both successful and unsuccessful) to silence speech, but we must not let these stand. If we are to be a people that value the free exchange of ideas, our universities must embody this. Students that learn simply to silence ideas they do not like will do the same when they leave the campus and enter the real world.

Today’s students will be tomorrow’s judges, mayors, and city council members. If those exiting college do not value the First Amendment, where will that leave our society?

In response to a series of incidents suppressing speech on campus, Lee Rowland of the ACLU wrote about the importance of protecting all speech:

These incidents have not shut down a single bad idea. To the contrary, they’ve given their opponents’ ideas credence by adding the power of martyrdom. When you choose censorship as your substantive argument, you lose the debate [emphasis added]. Because none of us are the wiser about the better world those protesting students want to see — instead of telling us, they silenced others. In curricular terms: They didn’t do the assignment.

And on that, ADF and the ACLU can agree.

Ideas debated in universities become the ideas that shape our society. It is our duty to ensure that all of these ideas have their day in the marketplace of ideas.

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