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Guest Opinion: Protect freedom of speech

BY GUEST OPINION | FEBRUARY 26, 2015 5:00 AM

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Freedom of speech, one of the most revered hallmarks of our democracy, is endangered on college campuses across the United States. Consider this small selection of cases, just from the past year:
A University of Tulsa student was suspended because of posts his partner made online that were critical of the university.

Peace activists at Western Michigan University were denied access to university spaces for an activism event.

Montclair State students faced financial penalties after circulating pro-Palestine literature on campus.

And right here on the University of Iowa campus, students are required to seek official administrative approval before exercising their rights and freely expressing their ideas in an organized demonstration.

Today, students will gather across the UI campus to speak out against these blatantly unconstitutional policies. This institution’s policies are particularly troublesome because it is partially funded by taxpayers, who expect their constitutional rights to be protected. Permit or not, other young citizens and I will take our message to students and make clear we won’t stand for free-speech restrictions of any kind.

Thousands of UI students have been troubled this year by the restrictive climate manufactured by our university administrators, who tell us that our Bill of Rights is somehow at odds with respect and inclusiveness. We demand that our college administrators make a clear and vocal commitment to free speech rights.

Authorities, whether they be federal or university, shouldn’t be in the position of deciding what’s offensive. The First Amendment isn’t designed to boost prevailing sentiment and the most popular ideas; it’s meant to protect things that make us uncomfortable. Our state and federal rights do not end when we step foot on campus and if we believe in the rule of law, we have to defend the First Amendment throughout our state institutions, college campuses included.

One purpose of higher education is to expose students to a broad array of ideas and subject them to meaningful and thoughtful debate. When we exclude ideas from public discourse, through administrative policies, we’re stifling that mission.

Our constitutional right to free speech, after all, isn’t meant to protect the powerful or the popular. It’s meant to protect the marginalized and the unpopular. And there are very good reasons for that — the story of human progress is a story of once-unpopular ideas becoming powerful forces of change.

But even bad ideas deserve protection. When people use their rights to spread offensive or uncomforting messages, it does no service to squelch it. Bad ideas should be discussed and rejected in the open. Censorship may force those ideas into the shadows, but it doesn’t confront them the way honest dialogue does.

We must trust our community is strong and thoughtful enough to deal openly with ideas they object to.

I invite students who are concerned about the creeping arm of censorship to join us on the Pentacrest today to assert their right to gather, speak, and demonstrate without a permission slip from their university nannies (bureaucrats). For those who do not support free expression, I invite you to engage in thoughtful debate and freely express your position against such with us.

I also invite those concerned students and citizens to join Young Americans for Liberty for its first-ever Iowa Convention on the UI campus on March 7. Young activists from around the Midwest will meet in Iowa City to organize against the restrictions we’ve seen here and elsewhere. For more information or to register, visit YALiberty.org/states.

Matt Evans
state director, Young Americans for Liberty


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