My Turn: UNH is failing to lead on free speech

  • In this April 6, 2016, file photo, students walk past the historic Thompson Hall at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. AP

For the Monitor
Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Across the nation, free speech on college campuses is under attack. From riots at UC-Berkeley to violence at Middlebury next door in Vermont, many Granite Staters have watched these events unfold in disgust, while regarding it as a problem that happens somewhere else.

While we have so far avoided violence, unfortunately free speech is being limited on the campuses of New Hampshire’s public universities.

The retreat from free and open debate to an aggressively enforced conformity on college campuses did not happen overnight, and it won’t be reversed overnight. Instead of shielding students from ideas they disagree with, it is up to our institutions of higher learning to provide a safe and open environment where students can freely challenge preconceived views.

Universities are meant to be places that encourage debate, to help prepare students for the challenges of careers outside of school. On too many college campuses, including some here in New Hampshire, that’s no longer the case.

Campus “speech codes” have become a tool for administrators, professors and student organizations to target and restrict unpopular speech. Of the 449 colleges and universities analyzed by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, only one in New Hampshire – Plymouth State – received a passing grade on the group’s speech code rating.

Conspicuously absent from FIRE’s list of passing schools was the University of New Hampshire, which includes restrictive speech codes in student handbooks to control public discourse – and thought – on campus.

One provision of the UNH student handbook that is particularly egregious requires a permission slip from the university police before distributing literature containing political opinions, organizing groups or publicly addressing controversial topics.

That’s right. Before our young adults can engage in speech protected by the First Amendment, they have to ask the cops.

Freedom of speech and assembly do not grant total license to do whatever you want. Universities can of course enforce reasonable guidelines, but the onus is on public universities (not private ones) to narrowly tailor any restrictions they place on speech and expression. There have been many recent cases where students were arrested or threatened with arrest for engaging in activism outside of a narrow “free speech zone” or outside of designated activism times. There’s a huge difference between a rule saying you can’t organize a protest at 3 a.m. in front of a sleeping student’s windows, and a rule saying that protests are allowed for only two hours every other Thursday afternoon within a 10-by-10 square patch of grass.

Universities try to justify such policies under the guise of safety. But they infantilize students while illegally limiting their constitutional rights.

When institutions restrict debate and freedom of ideas in public spaces, they create an environment of uniformity that shields students from having to develop the critical-thinking skills necessary to back up their ideas, as they will have to do post-graduation. The real world is far less forgiving of those who refuse to embrace diversity of thought, and the unwillingness to challenge groupthink on campus works against the primary goal of a college education: preparing students for successful careers as the discoverers, thinkers and leaders of tomorrow.

It is time to stop protecting students from ideas they may not agree with, and instead open campus to the marketplace of ideas.

This session, the New Hampshire House of Representatives considered House Bill 477, sponsored by state Rep. Eric Schleien of Hudson, which would roll back some of these speech codes, especially for enrolled students. The bill stalled in committee, but the Legislature has an opportunity to bridge the divide next year.

As we have witnessed across the nation, the political arena has become extremely divisive, and civil discussion has too often devolved to screaming and at times violence. Our public institutions of higher learning must rise above the clamor, not only to set a standard for public debate, but also to better prepare students for the future, where arguments must be backed up by facts and engaged in with proper decorum.

It is past time New Hampshire learned the lessons from events across the nation, and adopt a free and open campus culture.

(Ross Connolly, who lives in Manchester, is a spokesperson for Generation Opportunity.)