Let’s Stop Acting So Cavalierly About First Amendment Rights at Colleges. Please?

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“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” — First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

Students on college campuses across the nation are quite familiar with the guarantees of free speech and to assemble. Such rights were a hallmark of student activism in the 1960s. And their embrace continues today.

But a funny thing happened between a generation known for its passionate advocacy for civil rights and an end to the Vietnam War and now. Today, too many see those freedoms and speech and assembly with self-inflicted blinders, believing such rights are meant to apply only to those who agree with us.

As originally conceived, the First Amendment was written to ensure a protected place for reasoned dissent in our new nation. Today, it is used as a weapon to protect against disagreement or opposing viewpoints and silence those who may see things differently.

When, exactly, did we allow the First Amendment to be bastardized to prevent civil discourse and public debate? When, exactly, did we determine it was OK to defend free speech, but only if it was speech we agreed with?

Last week, The Washington Post reported on a student sit-in at Smith College. There, students wanted to demonstrate their support for fellow students at the University of Missouri by exercising their “right of the people peaceably to assemble.”

But there was a catch. Protest organizers declared that the only members of the media who would be allowed to attend the protest would be those who “explicitly state they support the movement in their articles.”

Or in simpler terms, you must support our First Amendment rights to assemble and speak, but we do not need to recognize the First Amendment rights of a free press. Sounds a little more Stalinist that Founding Father, doesn’t it?

Make no mistake, Smith College students aren’t the only ones guilty of the “do as I say, not as I do” mentality on college campuses today. As each day passes, we are seeing more and more demands for “tolerance” being offered through a lens of utter intolerance.

If there was ever a place where dissent and debate should occur, it should be a college campus. Instead of debate, we are now using the platform of free speech to mute those students who hold a different point of view. Instead of dissent, we accuse fellow students of violating our “safe spaces” and creating a hostile learning environment.

In the 1995 film The American President, the president is questioned about how we can possibly support the ACLU and the burning of the American flag. In his response, President Shepherd responds:

America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say ‘You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest.’ Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms.

That’s what today’s college students should be advocating. Free speech for all, no matter how offensive that speech may be. Free assembly for all, no matter how ugly a protest may be or how horribly the topic offends our very sensibilities. Free press for all, no matter how they editorialize on a given issue or choose to see only one side of a complicated issue. And the right to petition, even if those grievances are made against the very things you hold most dear.

Yes, America is indeed advanced citizenship. The rights given to us in the U.S. Constitution are just that. They are given to us. As Americans, we do not need to earn them. Many before us have fought and died to ensure we all hold these rights unconditionally. There is no test to ensure we are protected, and there is no Hunger Games-style contest to decide which rights we choose to respect or honor. When it comes to our Constitutional rights, we are all in. All 322 million of us.

Whether its demanding opposing voices be silenced, requiring litmus tests of a free media, or pleading that those pieces of a complicated American history we dislike be stripped from public recognition, we do a grave disservice to our nation and to those First Amendment rights we claim to hold so dear. Such freedoms should be, are, absolute, not conditional.

That is what we should be celebrating on college campuses.

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