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Three Ways Colleges Are Suppressing Speech — And How Students Can Fight Back

Students should learn to engage with all types of ideas, and this starts with universities that foster, not impede, open discourse.
Tyson Langhofer
A group of college students is seen walking through campus at sunset

Most universities in America say they value free speech, but actions speak louder than words. And based on the actions of several universities, they only value certain kinds of speech.

I serve as the director of the Center for Academic Freedom at Alliance Defending Freedom, and I’ve noticed three ways university officials have suppressed the speech of students who hold viewpoints at odds with the new, ever-shifting academic orthodoxy.

First, university officials will distance themselves from the values of certain student groups (oftentimes conservative groups), giving other students the impression that they should do something about it. Too often, that “something” takes the shape of a violent mob.

Second, college administrators will accept the word of the “offended” party without an honest investigation into the alleged injuries, swiftly adjudicating the matter without really giving the other students involved time to mount a defense.

Finally, where administrators could easily ensure safety and free speech at a potentially controversial event, they will instead refuse to enforce the law, oftentimes creating a chilling effect on future events meant to entertain free thought and discourse.

Earlier this year, for example, chapters of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the College Republicans at the University of Pittsburgh wanted to host a debate at the school. The debate featured speakers Michael Knowles and Brad Polumbo, the event was titled “Should Transgenderism be Regulated by Law?”, and it was scheduled to feature a moderated debate followed by 30 minutes of Q&A and 40 minutes of meet-and-greet.

Leading up to the event, the university issued a press release calling the debate “toxic and hurtful for many people in our University community.” Provost Ann Cudd called Knowles's views “repugnant” and “hate-filled” and invited students to “several events planned for Tuesday April 18 in response to Knowles's unwelcome presence on campus.” Those “several events” became a violent mob that disrupted the end of the event incited by university officials — a fact that the university disputes even after it canceled a nearly $19,000 security fee to the groups hosting the event.

Sometimes, though, students use school officials to attack other students, as is the case of Maggie DeJong at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. After posting her Christian viewpoints online about various cultural topics, three students reported DeJong to university officials. And in February 2022, those officials slapped her with no-contact orders, accusing her of “harassment” and “discrimination.” She was not given an explanation of the accusations against her for two weeks.

Those officials recently participated in First Amendment training as part of a settlement agreement after DeJong sued the school.

A similar situation happened at the University of Idaho when three Christian law students and their faculty adviser received no-contact orders after explaining why their Christian Legal Society chapter held to biblical views about marriage. That case also ended in a favorable settlement for our clients after a court issued a preliminary ruling in our favor.

While some universities directly get involved in speech disputes, others will exercise a degree of cowardice that, in itself, is an attempt to chill speech. In March, a Students for Life of America chapter at Virginia Commonwealth University invited the national organization’s president, Kristan Hawkins, to speak on campus. A mob of protesters showed up and blocked the doors while shouting obscenities and slurs at the students who wanted to attend the event. The mob turned violent, destroying the group’s AV equipment and assaulting pro-life students. EMTs then arrived at the scene after multiple students were injured.

ADF sent a letter to VCU, saying it failed in its constitutional duty to provide security in an effort to protect free speech. In response, Hawkins was invited back, and this time, security was called in and halted the mob efforts before any more violence could be done.

Where universities should be supporting speech and encouraging young people to grow into well-reasoned adults, officials spend tremendous amounts of effort coddling preferred viewpoints, turning students on each other, and then shrugging off responsibility when certain events go awry. Students should be aware of their constitutionally protected rights and how they can stand up for them when the administrators who should be encouraging them are suppressing their right to express a viewpoint.

Students should learn to engage with all types of ideas, and this starts with universities that foster, not impede, open discourse.

Tyson Langhofer
Tyson Langhofer
Senior Counsel, Director of Center for Academic Freedom
Tyson Langhofer serves as senior counsel and director of the Center for Academic Freedom with Alliance Defending Freedom.