Our country was founded on the belief that individuals have inherent rights and liberties, and that the protection of these liberties is government’s highest purpose. The First Amendment of the U.S.
Constitution contains many of the most important freedoms, including the freedoms of speech, press, religion, assembly and petition. In the 225 years since the passage of the First Amendment in 1791, citizens have engaged in a spirited debate, often decided by the courts, about what each of those rights means in practice. This debate is raging today on college campuses, including UL Lafayette, with the resurgence of “chalking,” political messages written on campus walkways, walls and public areas.
These chalkings, much ballyhooed in the national media as the contest for president has intensified, focus mostly on the lightning-rod candidacy of Donald Trump. Some of the chalkings are pure endorsement, like “Trump for President,” “Trump 2016” and “Vote Trump.” Other phrases — “Build the Wall,” “Hillary for Treason” and “They Have to Go Back #Trump” — are more pointed. So pointed, in fact, that some students feel they trample on the free exchange of ideas for which colleges are known. The most objectionable of these chalkings have been termed “microaggressions,” messages intended to intimidate minorities and other historically disadvantaged groups by creating a climate of hostility and exclusion, violating in the process most colleges’ mission and values.
UL Lafayette’s “Mission, Values, Vision” statement, for example, proclaims the university’s dedication to “equity” (fair treatment and justice), “integrity,” “intellectual curiosity,” “tradition,” “transparency” (practicing open communication), “respect” (demonstrating empathy and esteem for others), “collaboration,” “pluralism” (believing in the inherent worth of diverse culture and perspectives) and “sustainability.” Just how do chalkings spouting antiimmigrant or anti-Muslim rhetoric fit into the landscape of values created by UL Lafayette’s mission statement? Are provocative chalkings simply the cost of doing business in a free society, or should a student or community’s feeling of injury function as an (oddly appropriate) “trump card,” silencing those who stray outside the careful boundaries of mutual respect. What lessons can a university be said to teach, if it prohibits the free expression of its students?
Curious to see how UL students view this issue, I put a few of the incendiary messages up on the board, and then polled my “State and Local Government” class for their responses. The results: in a class of 31, 28 said speech (like these chalkings) should not be limited on college campuses, while three students said some limitations might be prudent. Says one student, “Free speech creates an environment that forces us to interact with people who believe differently than we do — this is a vital life skill.” Another says, “I think statements such as ‘Build the Wall’ are perfectly fine. People need to have thicker skin.” A dissenter from this view remarked that “you can’t scream fire in a movie theater and you shouldn’t be able to write ‘No Muslims, No Islam’ on walls. The fact is words hurt. Just because you can say something doesn’t mean you should.”
Then I turned to my colleague Dr. Rick Swanson, a recognized constitutional law expert in the Political Science Department. Swanson argues forcefully that the chalkings are a form of protected expression under the First Amendment. Noting that students at a public university have even greater protection for their speech than those at a private university, he says while a “public college has some ability to tell students the time, place and media they may use to say something, a public college has limited ability to tell students what they can or cannot say.” This is “especially true for political speech,” which the “U.S. Supreme Court says lies at the heart of the protections of the First Amendment.”
In fact, Swanson adds, the “protection of these political statements — especially the unpopular ones — is the very reason for the existence of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.” As he puts it, “In a democracy, government is never going to ban or punish popular speech. It’s only going to ban or punish unpopular speech that people find offensive. So there’s no point in having a Free Speech Clause unless it’s intended to protect unpopular, offensive viewpoints.”
What happens to the Socratic Method when students’ beliefs are not challenged or their world view expanded by grappling with stubborn facts and contrary viewpoints? Is not the ability to see all sides of an issue exactly what we expect a “liberal” education to deliver: the ability to think critically and creatively about history and society, and preparation to face the challenges that await them in the real world? Swanson argues that the “purpose of a university is to explore diverse and controversial ideas, including ideas some people might find offensive or disturbing. Yet serious discussion of such issues cannot occur without the willingness to feel uncomfortable and the ability to handle such discomfort.”
An influential essay in the Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” echoes Swanson, asking: “What exactly are students learning when they spend four years or more in a community that polices unintentional slights, places warning labels on works of classic literature [trigger warnings], and in many other ways conveys the sense that words can be forms of violence that require strict control by campus authorities, who are expected to act as both protectors and prosecutors?” Of course, the Founders were not thinking about microaggressions when they crafted the First Amendment.
In the long run it’s just as well they weren’t because they left the First Amendment inviolate and uncompromising, and the defense of free speech the task and inheritance of every American.
Pearson Cross is an associate professor in the Political Science Department at UL Lafayette. He holds a Ph.D. from Brandeis University (1997), and his principal areas of teaching are state and local politics, and Southern politics. Cross interviews local politicians and newsmakers on his radio show, “Bayou to the Beltway,” which airs on KRVS 88.7 FM at 12:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and 5:30 p.m. on Saturdays. Contact him at [email protected].