Oliver: Freedom of speech on college campuses

Editor’s note on the afternoon of Tuesday, Sept. 17: A previous version of this column incorrectly stated that the University of Oregon is private property and that “jurisdiction remains with the President and student body government as to what speech is allowed and not allowed on campus.” The UO is a publicly funded university that receives federal funding and the protections of the First Amendment apply to those demonstrating on university property. This column was corrected to reflect that fact and was updated to include information about the university’s demonstration guidelines and to clarify the author's argument about think tanks influencing campus speech policies. 

Freedom of speech on college campuses continues to be a contentious issue. From all sides, I hear that there should be more listening and less yelling. The University of Oregon receives federal money as a public university and the First Amendment applies. Guidelines established on campuses outline rules of conduct regarding speech, demonstrations and signs, just to name a few. Think tanks with political motives are increasingly involving themselves in this on-campus debate, which I think undermines the autonomy of the student body and restricts their freedom of speech. Determining what speech is acceptable is often unclear and polarizing.

People have a misconception that the First Amendment gives them permission to say whatever they want, wherever they want. That statement is flawed when the individual is standing on a college campus. The First Amendment actually prevents the government from targeting an individual because of the ideas or actions that they promote, with some exceptions. The University of Oregon outlines in the Free Speech and Demonstration Guidelines, additional rules that individuals on campus have to follow when they are voicing an opinion. The guidelines can limit an individual’s freedom of speech on behalf of the greater community. University guidelines state that when there is a conflict between the two groups, “officials have the authority to request those involved in one activity to stop, move, or change their behavior, so that the other activity can continue.” 

The university elaborates on their dedication to remaining impartial by stating that it “applies its rules and expectations in a manner neutral to the viewpoints expressed.” If the university community has an issue with the guidelines outlined above, they should work to change that document, as that is the barrier to their freedoms — not the First Amendment.

The Goldwater Institute, a conservative lobbying group is advocating for codes that limit counter protests that have erupted on college campuses. They assert that conservative viewpoints are being culturally exiled from college campuses. Thus the institute believes that rules need to be put in place to limit counter protests—which they argue are a retaliation to conservative talking points. 

The irony of this model is that its strict protection of free speech and “disciplinary sanctioning”  for counter protests infringes on the First Amendment. Controlling and punishing speech makes it inherently unfree. 

The freedom of speech discussion on college campuses is a symptom of a greater cultural reckoning bubbling up. People are no longer tolerant of talking to others who disagree with them politically. Conservative or liberal think tanks should not be implementing guidelines that limit free speech on college campuses—the community should self-regulate and address the cultural issue on its own.

Students are practicing a simulation of life on campus, and it is important to let discussions ensue, allow problems to arise and pass without the intervention of lobbying groups. With protection from the First Amendment, students are able to promote ideas or actions and this should not be limited or confused with outside groups who are trying to take advantage of that freedom to push their agenda. I argue that there is no need to build on the demonstration restrictions that the University of Oregon already has unless the campus advocates for it. 

Going down a hyper-politicised path in hopes of finding understanding often leads to a dead end. On the contrary, getting coffee with someone who disagrees with you politically would bring perspective to a usually divisive online conversation. Misunderstandings on either side can be clarified, and both individuals might walk away with a newfound respect for someone, even if they hold opposing viewpoints on most issues.