The Charles Koch Institute’s First-Annual Prize for American Free Speech Essay contest received hundreds of excellent submissions from students around the country who added their voices to a pressing and important debate by answering the question: What is the importance of free speech to a flourishing society?
Here are the top essays selected by our panel of judges:
First Place: Nora Faris, University of Missouri
I remember sifting through the stacks of college brochures that arrived during my senior year of high school. Smiling students peered from the pages, sporting their college colors against a backdrop of a sunny, manicured campus. The universities’ descriptions included vague but enticing claims of “a diverse, accepting culture,” “educational excellence,” and “the freedom to find your place.”
I have always considered myself a realist. Therefore, it was no surprise to me when the college I chose to attend—the University of Missouri—failed to live up to its postcard-perfect image. The promised “challenging, thought-provoking courses” were, indeed, challenging and thought-provoking. But mandatory freshman-level classes were a challenge to stay awake through and provoked thoughts of frustration at paying for required courses with little application to my major. Likewise, the perpetual summer enjoyed by students on the college advertisements was a sham. By December, I was wading to class through snow drifts.
Coming from Missouri, I anticipated the wintry weather. What I did not expect was the chilling effect my university, its administration, and my fellow students would come to have on my freedom of speech, thought, and expression.
A national media microscope was placed on the University of Missouri during the fall of our discontent in November 2015. Here are the images the world saw: a young man, starving for justice and equality, going on a hunger strike; a college sports team refusing to play; university administrators stepping down and others stepping up to take their places; protestors creating “safe spaces” and excluding media from joining the conversation on racial inequality.
An important image was missing from the coverage of the events on my campus. It was the image of the undergraduate students afraid to express their dissent for fear of being labeled “subversive.” With new speech codes in place as a result of events on campus, students at MU were left asking, “What can I say?”
In an attempt to extinguish inflammatory or offensive speech on campus, the MU Police Department released a statement to students encouraging “individuals who witness incidents of hateful and/or hurtful speech or actions to call the police immediately.”
Putting the First Amendment first and protecting speech unequivocally should be the goal of every American academic institution. Trigger warnings and safe spaces were designed by academia to make students feel comfortable, but they have produced an uncomfortable result: the erosion of free speech through the amplification of some voices and the suppression of others.
Universities should work to advance free, open dialogue by protecting all voices. Under the First Amendment, the entirety of the United States is a “safe space” where people should be able to share personal opinions and speak without fear of reprisal.
When students consider their college choice, they should be assured that their university supports the unbridled transmission of ideas, speech, and thoughts. Universities should ensure that what students see on the glossy brochures—a welcoming, respectful forum—is what they get.
Nora Faris is a sophomore at the University of Missouri studying science and agricultural journalism. She plans to obtain a law degree and pursue a career in public affairs, focusing on rural, environmental, and agricultural policy.
Second Place: Sasha Bryski, University of Pennsylvania
The Constitution does not shelter us from being offended. Freedom of speech is the foundation of a flourishing society, and its infringement leads to a decline not only in liberty but also in societal progress. Meaningful engagement cannot exist when we are censored, and without discourse we cannot seek the truth. Censorship leads to a stagnant society, with members who are unable to challenge ideas and are afraid to think for themselves.
John Stuart Mill emphasized freedom of opinion in his writing. “Opinion” points to the subjectivity of our views: They are supposed to differ, and expressing disagreements is the best way to evolve toward the truth. In On Liberty, Mill writes that suppressing an opinion harms all of society, not just the dissenters. He explains that there are three options: The opinion may be true, in which case restraining it actually hides the truth; the opinion may be partially true, and must be discussed to reveal the remainder of the truth; or the opinion is false, in which case it is beneficial to challenge the opinion to uncover the truth. Mill asserts that the truth becomes a “dead dogma, not a living truth” if it is not discussed; challenging ideas keeps them alive. Disagreement should be more than protected—it should be encouraged.
Advocates for censorship have claimed that suppressing divergent views would make us all safer. At Wesleyan University, the funding for a school newspaper was cut after a moderately conservative op-ed was published. Yale students spat on attendees of a free speech conference in the name of creating a more inclusive environment for minorities. The dis-invitation rate of campus speakers has dramatically increased. And even comedians now stray away from colleges.
How far are we willing to go in an effort to ensure the comfort of everyone? And whose offended feelings should we validate? The answer is that all people’s feelings are valid and important, but acknowledging these feelings should not result in censorship.
There will always be opinions that are offensive or immoral. These opinions matter. We can’t just protect the rights of people we agree with. Moreover, every society has opinions that are wrong, even at the top. But the ability to grow by challenging these ideas is exclusive to a free society.
Some believe that censoring certain speech is a way to be welcoming to our diverse society and be progressive. But that way of thinking will take us back in time, making us more coercive and less pluralistic. Comfort is antagonistic to growth, and if we don’t challenge ideas, we may inadvertently become compliant with norms that are unjust.
An indoctrinating environment is the exact opposite of safe, and censoring people does not make them better or more virtuous. As John Milton wrote, “Liberty is the best school of virtue.” We can’t take away one person’s rights to increase the comfort of another. If an idea is wrong, protest! But let the other side protest, too. The United States is a haven from tyranny, not from discomfort.
Sasha Bryski is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in philosophy, politics, and economics (PPE). Her interests lie in public policy, with an emphasis on individual liberty. She serves on the University Honor Council and teaches elementary school health education classes with the Penn Health Initiative. She has also written and edited for the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal.
Third Place: Sebastian Marotta, Princeton University
Imagine a society where you could be publicly humiliated for a comment that was made with no ill intentions but contravened nebulous standards of decency. Imagine a campus where professors held their tongues for fear of accidentally transgressing the ever-changing boundaries of permissibility. Imagine a conversation where every word has a hidden meaning that, if used incorrectly, renders you friendless. Everyone is an informant. Everyone is judging. One mistake and you are finished.
You would be forgiven if you envisioned a classroom in North Korea or Cuba, but the reality occurs far closer to home. College campuses, once the bastion of free speech and open discourse, are slowly silencing their dissidents and enforcing a new brand of ideological purity. This disturbingly Stalinist tendency ignores a fundamental truth: Freedom of expression is not meant to be pretty. In fact, sometimes it can make you feel bad—which, contrary to conventional wisdom, is perfectly acceptable.
Free speech is the foundation of a flourishing society because it enables us to engage in a dialogue that keeps people equal and government accountable. In order to preserve a flourishing society and pass on important values from one generation to the next, we must extend its foundation deep into the dirt. We will encounter opinions that are rude, distasteful, ignorant, insulting, and degrading. Free speech is, by nature, dirty. John Stuart Mill would tell you that even bad speech is productive because it sparks a discussion that eventually leads to the truth. So instead of running away when things start to get rough, you dust yourself off and respond logically. As Professor Robert George says, “reasons and arguments,” not intimidation and silencing, are the “currency of academic discourse.”
Free speech allows us to criticize ourselves and our government—those with whom we agree and those with whom we disagree. Speech is the foundation upon which all of our other rights are built. Without that freedom, who would speak out for the oppressed? It comes as no surprise that censorship is the first step taken by autocrats to prevent individual challenges, as they abridge freedoms of the press, of worship, and of assembly. Pastor Martin Niemöller, who suffered in Nazi concentration camps for his beliefs, put it beautifully: “First they came for the socialists, but I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. … Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out.”
Free speech is so critical because it prevents anyone from being silenced. When that freedom is gone, little remains to prevent the loss of our other freedoms. So speak out. Speak out for a cause you believe in. Speak out against intimidation, no matter how small. Even if you disagree or lack common beliefs, like Pastor Niemöller and the socialists, stand up for the freedom of expression for everyone. When that foundation begins to crumble, the building will certainly collapse.
Sebastian Marotta is a senior in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. He is a co-founder of the Princeton Open Campus Coalition, which seeks to promote free speech on college campuses.
The views expressed in these essays do not necessarily represent the views of the Charles Koch Institute.