State Legislators Who Think They’re Defending Free Speech Are Actually Hurting It

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Illiberal tendencies can present serious challenges to higher education. Questions are foundational to learning and research. If questions go unasked – because of a culture that discourages them, policies that restrict them, or uniformity of opinion that simply fails to prompt them – academia doesn’t play its critical role in advancing knowledge.

Rather than addressing these legitimate concerns, recent actions by some state legislators — however well-intentioned — would do more harm than good.

An Arkansas bill, eventually withdrawn by its sponsor, would have banned any course, class, event, or activity that “promotes division between, resentment of, or social justice for a race; gender; political affiliation; social class; or particular class of people” or that “is designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group.”

An Iowa bill passed earlier this year seeks to ban the teaching of “divisive concepts,” including “that one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex,” that “the United States of America and the state of Iowa are fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist,” and that “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.” 

New Hampshire lawmakers have introduced a bill that includes many of the same “divisive concepts” definitions and would bar the teaching about systemic racism and sexism.

In Idaho, the governor signed a law that prohibits public higher education institutions from teaching principles that the state deems inherent to critical race theory. 

And in Florida, the legislature passed a measure intended to encourage students to record professors’ lectures without permission and requiring public colleges and universities to conduct annual “bias” surveys to collect information on the personal political beliefs of faculty and students.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. But it demonstrates the breadth and depth of what appears to be a concerning national trend.

The language in these measures is overly broad. In each case, the legislation would sow confusion and threaten academic freedom far beyond those supposedly targeted. And the measures are short-sighted: They amount to heavy-handed overreach that will discourage the open educational environment they claim to champion.

In the guise of free speech, these are simply speech codes by another name.

For colleges to advance progress through open inquiry, they need to be free from outside interference that undermines the scientific process. Universities flourish not because of a purposefully designed balance of ideological perspectives, but because they provide an open environment where scholars – regardless of philosophy – can engage in a battle of ideas across disciplines.

Conflating ideological balance with exposure to ideas is a misunderstanding of how scientific breakthroughs happen. It wrongly portrays the complex interactions of scholars as that of mere politicized agents.  

A hallmark of higher ed is an environment that allows students and scholars to follow the truth wherever it may take them. Legislation like the measures in Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, and elsewhere fly in the face of that principle. They effectively argue that free speech and open inquiry are good only to the extent that those principles are applied in support of the ideas and questions lawmakers approve. That’s precisely the wrong way to expand the freedom necessary to engage with a diversity of ideas and the learning, debate, intellectual growth, and societal progress it drives.

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