Lessons Learned From Listening To College Students Across America

By Nicole Neily, President of Speech First

When I first launched Speech First nearly two years ago, I knew there was a toxic culture of censorship in higher education. But working with college students across the country has really driven home the hardships that students face on campus when they express viewpoints that stray from the gospel of “tolerance” that is preached by university administrators!

On an ongoing basis, I’m humbled by students’ stories about how they face tough decisions just to exercise their First Amendment rights – and reminded exactly why we fight!

Here are some lessons we’ve learned from students about the state of free speech in higher education:

  1. An astonishing number of students don’t understand their rights! Countless polls have shown that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the First Amendment is and what it covers (spoiler alert: hate speech is, in fact, covered – much to the chagrin of 41% of students).
  2. “Stockholm Syndrome” is a real problem! I regularly talk to students about the problems they face on campus, and many acknowledge that their applications for tabling or hosting events receive extra scrutiny compared to other organizations – and they’re very matter-of-fact about it. I constantly need to remind students that being treated differently by a school administration based on viewpoint is NOT OKAY!
  3. One brave student can make a difference. Even IF a student knows his or her rights, the deck is stacked against standing up for them – because at the end of the day, students still want to get their diploma, and there’s no telling what kind of retribution they might face. But from leveraging a school’s own policies against them to being the named plaintiff in a lawsuit against their school to even just passing on an anonymous tip that can be investigated, the only way to effect change is to do something about it!
  4. Students self-censor at astonishing rates – but it’s important to ask “why” they’re doing so. According to a poll earlier this year, more than two-thirds of college students say their campus climate precludes students from expressing their true opinions because their classmates might find them offensive. But it’s one thing for students to avoid talking about controversial topics because of on-campus culture – it’s another thing altogether if they do so because they fear disciplinary repercussions by their university! We can (and will continue to) file lawsuits against schools that have policies on the books that chill student speech; however, we can’t sue our way to popularity!
  5. Showing up matters. Student groups often tell me that when they’re tabling, individuals will come up and quietly tell them “I agree with you,” or “thanks for being here,” even if they’re too scared to sign up for membership or to attend a meeting because they fear being stigmatized. While that may be frustrating for student club leaders, it still demonstrates the importance of being visible – because it lets other students with similar beliefs know that they’re not alone.
  6. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. It’s hard to go more than a day or two without learning about some new outrageous incident on campus – and while this may be disheartening to some people because it feels like there’s a tidal wave of hate out there, exposing misdeeds is critical in bringing about change! Often, administrators would like nothing more than to sweep problems under the rug – but when the public knows about problems, then they’re forced to address the underlying issue.

It may seem like a never-ending fight, but I am inspired each day by the brave, smart students I’ve gotten to know – it’s an honor to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them to defend this most important right. Our team hopes for a day when all Americans understand and appreciate the importance of free speech… but until that day comes, Speech First will be there!

If you are a student with a story to share, click here to contact Speech First.

If you are a concerned citizen who wants to do more, become a member of Speech First.

If you want to help us continue the fight, please consider making a donation.


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