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Our Opinion: Education can change troubling attitudes on freedom of expression

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Halls of higher learning are becoming a refuge for the intellectually fragile and perpetually offended.

A majority of American college students believe controversial speakers should be thrown off campus and don’t know that highly offensive viewpoints are protected by the First Amendment, according to an October 2017 study conducted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education billed as “the most comprehensive survey on students’ attitudes about free speech to date.”

Just 46 percent of survey respondents understand that hate speech is constitutionally shielded from government censorship. While denouncing those who hold racist, sexist or otherwise narrow-minded views is a healthy component of open discourse, demanding that they be silenced or punished is a bridge too far.

Nearly seven in 10 students (69 percent) who believe it’s OK to rescind invitations to guest speakers in some cases say speakers who have made “racist or hateful” comments in the past should be blacklisted.

Students clam up in the classroom to avoid causing controversy, the FIRE survey shows. More than half of respondents (54 percent) say they’ve stopped themselves from sharing an idea or opinion in class. Students who describe themselves as “very liberal” are 14 percentage points more likely to feel comfortable speaking out than their conservative counterparts.

Sixty-three percent of “very liberal” students and 45 percent of “very conservative” students said they wanted to be “part of a campus community where they are not exposed to intolerant or offensive ideas.”

“There is clearly a partisan divide in how students perceive free speech on college campuses,” FIRE Executive Director Robert Shibley said in a statement. “This further solidifies the importance of FIRE’s mission. Free expression is too important to become a partisan issue in higher education.”

The Philadelphia-based foundation is a private, nonpartisan group dedicated to preserving free speech, academic freedom and due process on college campuses. FIRE has defended students of all political persuasions from administrative sanctions and believes universities should be a marketplace of ideas.

Recent high-profile clashes over conservative speakers have led some to dismiss the looming constitutional crisis as a right-wing grievance born of white privilege, but there are many instances of liberal students and professors being silenced and groups like FIRE rushing to their defense.

There is a problem with intolerance of free speech on the left — but both sides have their blind spots. Case in point: Students on the right bristle when liberal counterparts exercise their First Amendment right to engage in peaceful protest.

Sixty percent of Republican students said they shouldn’t have to walk past student demonstrations on campus, compared to only 28 percent of Democrats. That’s a yawning chasm of 32 percentage points. It should go without saying that protest rights don’t depend on classmates’ comfort or convenience.

The answer to pervasive ignorance of basic free-speech protections is education. That’s why colleges exist in the first place.

Professors should be explaining why we have the First Amendment in America and what it means for citizens in a free society. They can certainly use some help, and this week, media outlets and organizations will be assisting in that effort.

Free Speech Week began Monday and continues through Sunday. Organized by The Media Institute with support from partners including the American Bar Association, Newseum Institute, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Society of Professional Journalists and FIRE, “this nonpartisan, non-ideological event is intended to be a unifying celebration,” according to FreeSpeechWeek.org.

The Wilson Times is proud to support all citizens’ constitutional right to speak, write, publish and broadcast without fear of government sanction, and we call on public and private schools throughout Wilson County to devote some instructional time to First Amendment principles this week.

Editor’s Note: A version of this editorial was first published during Free Speech Week 2017. The comprehensive survey referenced above remains FIRE’s most recent report.