Q&A: Free Speech 101
Q: Why did you conduct a hearing to examine free speech on college campuses?
A: On July 4, Americans will celebrate 241 years of independence. We will celebrate our nation’s sovereignty and cherished individual freedoms that have been passed down from one generation to the next. As Americans, we are endowed with unalienable rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” As citizens, we are challenged to protect and defend the sacred blessings of freedom enshrined in our nation’s founding charters. During tumultuous periods of war and social upheaval, these founding principles have served as an unbending arc to keep America united, from the nation’s Civil War and civil rights movement to the Vietnam War and 21st century terrorism. Through it all, the U.S. Constitution enshrines the protection of freedom, liberty and justice for all. The five freedoms of the First Amendment are arguably the most well-known among Americans of all ages and walks of life: freedom of religion; freedom of speech; freedom of the press; freedom to assemble peaceably; and, freedom to petition the government for redress of grievances. Upholding this legacy and heritage of freedom for posterity depends on the next generation to stand up for and champion the free flow of ideas. Indeed, a consequential dissent written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes one year after World War I heralds the “marketplace of ideas” that has influenced the protections of the First Amendment for decades. Open dialogue and diversity of thought are vital hallmarks of self-government. Throughout my public service representing Iowa in the United States Senate, I prioritize constituent dialogue by holding meetings with Iowans in every county, every year. That’s why I view efforts to thwart free speech on college campuses as a red flag to self-government. The censorship of ideas on college campuses has a chilling effect on a student’s ability to digest, analyze and question opposing opinions. Banning speakers from campus to prevent certain messages from being heard does a disservice to the student body. It assaults the First Amendment. Institutions of higher learning should not be in the business of shielding students from opposing views. It poisons the well of democracy and erodes constitutional protections that generations of men and women in uniform have sacrificed life and limb to protect.
Q: What is your takeaway from the Judiciary Committee hearing?
A: We heard from seven witnesses who shared their views about the state of free speech on college campuses. The good news is not all college campuses are censoring free speech or restricting who comes to speak to the student body. However, two college students reported on “free speech zones” and other measures that they say results in intolerance and even fosters violence towards opposing viewpoints. In my opening statement, I referred to Northwestern University’s president who supports “safe spaces” for students to avoid uncomfortable debates. Carving out “free speech zones” and “safe spaces” creates a disconnect on college campuses that unplugs young adults from reality. Colleges need to help open their eyes to the world, not muddy the lens through which they see it. Restricting the free flow of ideas at an institution of learning flunks common sense. It fosters a conformist culture that will shrink mindful learning and stunt schools of thought. Expanding tolerance for differing viewpoints comes from exposure to dialogue, not censorship. College administrators who testified raised concerns about limited resources for maintaining campus security and student safety amid recent incidents of violent protests. Certainly, campus safety is critical to families who send their kids off to college and a critical responsibility of a college administration. However, using it as a scapegoat to undercut the First Amendment is a flawed argument. It’s very troubling that some college administrators are discriminating against speakers based on their points of view and political ideology. America does not subscribe to one single political orthodoxy. And while it’s no secret that prevailing political orthodoxy among many universities leans to the liberal end of the political spectrum, it’s unacceptable to prevent students from exploring the free flow of ideas and nurturing their ability to compromise and negotiate differences of opinion with civility and respect. Polarization and gridlock in Washington won’t ever improve if the next generation is indoctrinated to shut down free speech and shut out opposing views. Even liberal university administrators agree that conservative views are often unwelcome on campus. A provost from Stanford University has said, “There is growing intolerance at universities…a political one-sidedness that is the antithesis of what universities should stand for.” It’s promising that not all schools are adopting the censorship approach. America would be better served if more colleges adopted the University of Chicago’s policy. It expressly prohibits “obstructing or otherwise interfering with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.” Instead, it calls for counter-speech and peaceful protest to express disagreement. My takeaway from the hearing confirms what I have long practiced in public office. I’ll continue listening to whistleblowers who expose wrongdoing and continue seeking input from Iowans to bring their views to bear at the policymaking tables in Congress. America is better off when all voices have the freedom to be heard.