State of the Hill: Free Speech

Since election day, free speech has become a central topic of discussion. With several events happening within the last several months such as students being arrested for handing out constitutions on campus and UC Berkeley students rioting over a conservative speaker, and with the increasing noticeability of strict speech codes on college campuses, it is becoming increasingly important to analyze how free speech is being handled on college campuses. We should also see how this issue relates to Jewell, and what should possibly be done.

Public universities have been seemingly attacking free speech for years. A large mechanism that has been used is “free speech zones”. These are areas on campuses where students have the right to gather and speak freely. These speech zones are usually small, and in several cases are put in low quality places on campus where students rarely go. This is very problematic considering that these universities are paid through our tax dollars. If our 1st Amendment rights are extended anywhere on public lands, why do these rights seem to end at public universities? These are supposed to be institutions that foster the free exchange of ideas in hopes of seeking the truth.

Fortunately, Missouri is one of only two states in the United States where this is not an issue. Senate Bill 93 abolished all free speech zones at public universities. This means is that an entire campus is considered a free speech zone (with a couple very clear exceptions). This explains the reason behind Mizzou’s large presence all over Mizzou during the heated protests.

Where does William Jewell College fit into all of this? Obviously we are not affected by the law since we are a private school, but should Jewell be doing anything different? Luckily, we haven’t seen any troubling attacks on free speech at William Jewell (that I am aware of), but this doesn’t necessarily mean nothing should be done. Legally, William Jewell’s speech code must be followed, so whatever is enforced by the school is what is written in the Student’s Rights and Responsibilities. Is there anything wrong with the speech code? According to Section 1, Clause 3, “Students have the right to freedom of responsible expression, in speech, press, broadcasting, and religion, and the responsibility to avoid abusive expression, use of personal force and violence and threats of violence.” Is this speech code too vague? While some parts of the speech code are pretty clear, such as “violence and threats of violence”, we must be careful with some of the other language used in the speech code. Sophomore Oxbridge Music major Jonathan Daniel offered some insightful thoughts on this issue, “The vagueness [of the speech code] lies in “abusive expression” and what exactly is meant by “abusive” that isn’t “violent” or “threatening.”… I do think there are uses of speech that are harmful and should be opposed, but their purviews are incredibly narrow and ought not to be defined by specialized interests.”

What should William Jewell do to foster a culture of free speech? A possible suggestion is a change to the speech code to include more specific definitions of “responsible” and “abusive” speech. If we as an institution can apply our critical thinking, we can continue to foster a culture which respects the freedom to express all ideas. Like I said before, Jewell hasn’t had a problem yet, but with the increasing political polarization we’re seeing today and the reactionary attitudes on both sides of the spectrum, we must be sure to stand strong in our principles of critical thought, seeking the truth, and progressing as a society. We’ve all read John Stuart Mill, let’s show that we know what it means to foster a culture of free speech.

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