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Free Speech: The Core of Higher Education
By Kayla Hutcherson
Free Speech: The Core of Higher Education
French writer and philosopher Voltaire once said, “I do not agree with what you have
to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” This right to free speech, provided to
the people of the United States in the First Amendment, is a critical component of higher
education. Freedom of speech advances knowledge, protects us from corrupt government,
and stimulates individualism.
Free speech advances knowledge while censorship stifles it. Peter Salovey, President
of Yale University, in his freshmen address to the class of 2018, described how Yale’s
policies on free expression are based upon a report by C. Vann Woodward. The report
begins with “The primary function of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledge
by means of research and teaching. To fulfill this function a free interchange of ideas is
necessary not only within its walls but with the world beyond as well. It follows that the
university must do everything possible to ensure within it the fullest degree of intellectual
freedom” (Salovey). Opposing ideas and contrasting opinions cause claims to be further
researched and thus knowledge to be gained. When conflicting viewpoints are expressed,
students seek the truth, but if only one opinion is allowed to be expressed, the majority of
students will unquestioningly accept that opinion without understanding that a different view
may be correct. They are not stimulated to question a view that could very easily be untrue.
For example, in 1633, philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician Galileo Galilei wrote
about his belief that the earth revolved around the sun. This belief was contrary to the
teaching of the Catholic church, so the church banned Galileo’s book of his findings, and
Galileo spent the rest of his life under house arrest, forbidden from spreading his ideas. It
took 300 years for the Catholic church to recognize Galileo’s belief that the earth revolved
around the sun as fact (History.com Staff). The Catholic church’s censorship of Galileo’s
belief prohibited the public from possessing the knowledge of a key fact regarding the
working of the solar system. If students are not exposed to or allowed to express diverse
opinions, awareness is diminished and potential knowledge is suppressed.
Furthermore, with the right to free speech comes access to information and thus
protection against corrupt leadership. In the famous Zenger trial, John Peter Zenger was tried
under the Sedition Act for printing accusations against a corrupt governor, “seditious libel.”
By raising awareness of the governor’s faults, he enabled the people to take action against the
governor’s corruption (“The Trial of John Peter Zenger”). It is essential that citizens have
access to information and ideas in order to be well-informed, educated, productive members
of society. If information is censored, U.S. citizens would become vulnerable to oppression
and tyranny as in the days lived under the Sedition Acts. If censorship in colleges is
continually practiced, students will be unable to speak out against unfair treatment and unjust
college policies, causing those in “authority” to become too powerful. Higher education
cannot thrive in this inhibiting environment.
Finally, free speech stimulates an individual spirit. In the aforementioned address,
Yale President Salovey also said, “There will be times–quite frankly–when we will find the
ideas of others disgusting. But the answer to speech that offends us is, most often, our own
speech: The response to hateful speech is speech that effectively counters the words of hate”
(Salovey). Without free speech, students cannot learn to respect the speakers, becoming
stronger individuals themselves. Free speech allows college students to possess and articulate
opinions, express faith, and declare beliefs. They can listen to others do the same, knowing
that some people will agree with them, and others will not. However, agreement is not the
goal. Just the exposure to differing thoughts and viewpoints helps students learn more about
themselves. When allowed to express their opinions, college students can respect each other
for who they are and what they believe. After hearing the perceptions of others, students can
either strengthen their resolve or abandon an ideology for a new theory. That is the essence
of higher education.
In conclusion, President Ronald Reagan once said, “”Freedom is never more than one
generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must
be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.” As citizens of the United
States, we can use our voices to educate about the importance of free speech. We can
persuade others to join us in our quest to protect our freedom, and we can peacefully protest
when this right is infringed upon, just as Williams College student Zach Wood stood up for
his right to invite any speaker to the college campus, no matter what views they held
(Foundation for Individual Rights in Education). Censorship eradicates freedom and is a
detriment to society, hindering the advancement of knowledge, removing protection from
corruption, and stifling individualism. Thus, let us say with Voltaire, “I’ll defend to the death
your right to say it.” We cannot afford passivity regarding our intrinsic right to free speech.
Works Cited
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. “Free Speech Essay Contest.” FIRE, 2017,
www.thefire.org/student-network/essay-contest/.
History.com Staff. “Galileo Is Convicted of Heresy.” History.com, A Television
Networks, 2009, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/galileo-is-convicted-of-heresy.
Salovey, Peter. “Free Expression at Yale.” Free Expression at Yale | Office of the President,
Yale University, 23 Aug. 2014,
president.yale.edu/speeches-writings/speeches/free-expression-yale.
“The Trial of John Peter Zenger.” Ushistory.org, Independence Hall Association, 2008,
www.ushistory.org/us/7c.asp.

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