Free speech and being a college student

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By David L. Podos

Campus News

Free speech, in so many ways it is the corner stone of our democracy.  But does free speech mean we have the right to say anything we want any where we want any time we want?  There has been much debate over our first amendment right.  The use of free speech is powerful.  It can incite people to wars, or can liberate a country and its people from the yoke of poverty and despair. I am sure most people in this country covet their right to free speech, but once again, what does free speech really mean?

Do we have the right to scream “fire” (when there is none) in a crowded theater?  Do we have the right to yell “bomb” on an airplane when there is no bomb? Does free speech give rights to a group of American Nazis to march in a Jewish neighborhood spouting the tenets of racism?  Should free speech protect a group of KKK members to march and preach in a predominately African-American neighborhood?  Free speech is not always that easy.  

When I was a kid my mother told me, “David, free speech does not give you a license to say anything you want.”  Over the years what my mother said to me would oftentimes come back percolating up into my consciousness, and I would take a moment to reflect on what she had said – and she was right.

Lately I have been thinking about free speech in the college classroom.  Any student who has taken my classes knows I have a salty tongue, and I often take my students to the edge of any number of controversial topics.  I know I am not the first or the last college Instructor to use questionable language in the classroom, engage their students in controversial issues and pontificate at the lectern pushing my right of “free speech.” That said, I do believe the classroom should be a place to allow for open expression of opinion for both student and Instructor; and if it is sometimes painful, or makes someone uneasy, so be it. Life is not always easy, and oftentimes painful, and it is in those times when we are pushed outside our comfort zone that we stand to learn the most.

The American Association of University Professors and The American Association of Colleges and Universities developed in 1940 the “Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.”  It is quite a lengthy document, and I would suggest to students as well as faculty to take a look at it if you haven’t already.  It spends a good deal of time talking about the rights of professors and students in regards to free speech; however, it does tend to be weighted more towards faculty support. If you should find the energy to read it from first word to last, then go for it; however, a cursory overview should suffice and give most readers enough information to understand the basic “rules of the road.”

Even though faculty has this statement of principles, sometimes it can be a shock to students (particularly freshman students) who are not use to some of the more colorful language that is used by college instructors. Back in the 1970s when I was a college freshman, I remember in my Poetry 101 class a professor who was bigger than life.  He would stomp around that classroom yelling at the top of his lungs about character analysis and understanding the subtleties of an author’s prose, and so on and so forth. But what really caught my attention during one of his lectures was when he got into a debate with another student over what the meaning was behind the Beatles song “Eleanor Rigby.”  The student had a completely different perspective than the professor and vigorously debated him as he supported that viewpoint.  Things really began to heat up and before we knew it each were using what many would consider offensive language ; though it is good that each had the chance to bring their voice to the table. At the end of class the Professor asked what the student thought of him. The student hesitated for a moment and said, “You are a f***ing  assh**e!” The Professor simply smiled and said, “OK, here I am, a walking, f***ing  ass**le,” as he made his best rendition of what that character might look like by  walking back and forth across the classroom as the entire class roared with laughter, including the student who said it.

Of course, I am not suggesting to any student that you call your professor what that student called his, but what I realized way back then was this; that teacher allowed and supported free expression of speech in the classroom even if it meant that he would have one of his students shoot off that kind of epithet and be the butt (excuse my pun) of classroom laughter.  No one, I believe, including a college’s administration, other faculty, or any review board of college professors, will ever totally agree on how far a teacher can “push” the limits of free speech.  This also includes, in my opinion, an across the board agreement on far a student can “push” free speech in the classroom.

To try and make this somewhat manageable and understandable, for both instructors as well as for students, a well written, clear and cogent syllabus, which includes the “rules of the road” in regards to classroom discussion, debate, civility, etc., is a must.  I spend a great deal of time going over my syllabi on the first day of class; and when it comes to the aforementioned, I make sure my students totally understand where I am coming from.

I make sure they know that they have the right to agree or disagree with what I say, or what the author (from the text) says, or what another student says, or from any other outside material I may happen to bring in and discuss.  I maDavid-Podoske sure they know that each and every person has the right to express themselves, and they can do so in a supportive and non-threatening environment.  I make sure they know that if they debate or have something to say, they do so intelligently as well as respectfully. And finally I make sure they know that we can all agree to disagree, respectfully.  I think that is free speech most of us can agree on.

David L. Podos is an adjunct instructor for the Center for Social Sciences, Business and Information Sciences at MVCC.

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