In the concurring opinion of Whitney v. California (1927), Justice Louis Brandeis outlined the importance of free speech on college campuses stating, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” Many of today’s universities ignore Justice Brandeis’s advice and limit freedom of speech on their campuses in the name of social justice and anti-racism ideology. A recent study by the National Association of Scholars found that only 5.7% of professors are registered Republicans, indicating serious homogeneity of thought among university faculty. Despite its original intent to foster intellectual diversity among professors, the tenure process has instead become a means of perpetuating the left’s hold over higher education, with tenure boards only accepting applicants who align with them politically. As a result, the woke agenda flourishes on college campuses, teaching students what to think rather than how to think.
A prime example of this detrimental phenomenon comes from the University of Oklahoma, which instituted a required workshop for faculty entitled “Anti-Racist Rhetoric and Pedagogies.” The mandated programming instructs professors on eliminating offensive speech in their classrooms as part of the university’s mission to eradicate systematic racism. A video recording of the event obtained by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) illustrates how professors at the school ban “derogatory remarks” and “white supremacist sources” and prevent students from voicing opinions deemed insulting by the professor.
Many teachers would initially be reluctant to engage in outright censorship in the classrooms out of fear of punishment or legal action. However, the workshop’s leader, Kelli Pyron Alvarez, assured the teachers in attendance that they are within their rights to prevent the discussion of certain topics. “One of the fears is that we’re going to get in trouble for this, right?” she says early on in the discussion. “Like we can’t tell students that they can’t say something in class. But we can!”
In the cases Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969), Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser (1986), and Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988), the Supreme Court affirmed students’ right to free expression within the confines of school. The majority opinion in Tinker states that students “do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” However, Pyron Alvarez believes that these decisions do not apply at the U of O, stating, “The Supreme Court has actually upheld that hate speech, derogatory speech, any of the -isms do not apply in the classroom because they do not foster a productive learning environment. And so, as instructors, we can tell our students: ‘no, you do not have the right to say that. Stop talking right now,’ right?”
Professors do have the right to inhibit some expression in their classroom, including reprimanding students for poor behavior, guiding classroom discussions, and selecting assignment topics. However, the American Association of University Professors has explained that instructors enjoy academic freedom of “instruction, not indoctrination,” meaning professors cannot punish students for their beliefs. Nonetheless, the “Anti-Racist Rhetoric and Pedagogies” workshop compels professors to exert extreme control over the learning environment under the name of “civility” and eradicating “hate speech.”
The permeation of the “woke” social movement throughout American society has morphed higher education into a breeding ground for social activists. Rather than encouraging students to think critically about issues and develop their own opinions, the University of Oklahoma and other far-left institutions are offering value-driven educations based on the Marxist beliefs of their faculty. Higher education was intended to be a place for students to learn how to express themselves, discuss ideas with others, and obtain the necessary skills for employment. However, as the Oklahoma training shows, colleges no longer value the development of critical skills, instead choosing to focus their effort on training students on what is acceptable to think. Tuition prices have risen while pieces of training such as these have become commonplace across the United States, meaning students are paying more for a lower-quality education. Colleges must return to their original mission of teaching students professional skills necessary for employment in order to actually benefit students.
The only way to fix the broken university system is to disentangle politics from education. Instead of being encouraged to censor, professors should be taught how to instruct in an unbiased manner without injecting their beliefs into lesson plans. The First Amendment freedoms for college students are in jeopardy, and changes must be made to the system to restore these inalienable constitutional protections.