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We cannot stifle our freedom of speech

By Dr. Phil Roe, US Rep., TN 1st District

Our nation’s Constitution guarantees us certain inalienable rights, not the least of which is contained in its First Amendment: the freedom of speech. For years, college campuses have stood as a beacon to the ideal of free speech. As a Vietnam-era veteran, I saw first-hand how colleges and universities served as hotbeds for free speech and debate — some of which I vehemently disagreed with, in all candor. But, as a veteran myself, I fought to protect and defend this right to free speech, and as a country we were better served by allowing both sides to passionately argue their views, instead of bottling one side up.

Recently, however, free speech has come under attack at the very same institutions that served as conduits for this debate. College students have been challenged for expressing political beliefs; differences of opinion have been censored; speakers have been shouted down; and so-called free speech zones have been created to keep students from expressing their thoughts outside of restricted areas. If we train our next generation of leaders that disagreement is something to be avoided, our society will be worse off as a result.

Too often, students’ basic freedoms are being suppressed in an attempt to appease a vocal minority for whom no middle ground exists. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, 1 in 10 of America’s top colleges and universities quarantine student expression to so-called free speech zones. There needs to be greater recognition that this is a problem and that appeasement is not an option.

Last year, on two separate occasions, students were arrested for distributing copies of the United States Constitution. In both instances, the students were accused of violating the college’s free speech zone restrictions. First Amendment scholar Charles Haynes notes, “In the land of the free, the entire campus should be a ‘free speech zone.’” In a more widely publicized event earlier this year, Middlebury College students and protesters from the community prevented an invited speaker from giving his presentation and then attacked his car and assaulted a professor as the two attempted to leave, resulting in the professor suffering a concussion. The loud voices of a few intolerant students obstructed other students’ ability to participate in this school-sanctioned event. Worse, since the students involved in both the protest and the attack did not face any significant discipline for their actions, the message is unmistakable: Students are free to disrupt speakers they disagree with, using violence if necessary. Let there be no mistaking this for free speech.

There are countless additional examples. After further examining the bleak situation being created on college campuses around the country, I introduced a bipartisan resolution that serves as a first step to protect Americans’ First Amendment rights on college campuses. This isn’t about protecting conservative or liberal viewpoints — it’s about encouraging conservative and liberal viewpoints, and a diverse set of viewpoints in between.

Just this month, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed a new law that will prohibit colleges from disinviting speakers based on their viewpoints or from charging student groups higher security fees based on their speaker. This move is similar to the steps taken in the states of Virginia, Missouri, Arizona, Kentucky, Colorado and Utah. This is a strong step in the right direction, and I am proud to be a representative from a state that is working to advance and protect all free speech.

It is my hope that passing our resolution and these state efforts will send a strong message to college and campus leaders across the country. If our colleges and universities protect and foster the free and open exchange of ideas, our society will be better off as a result.