Editorial: Free speech is under attack on campuses and it’s not by the “woke left”

Editorial Board

Freedom of speech is a lauded American value and for good reason. The right to express oneself without fear of punishment or retaliation from authorities is essential to the working of any liberal democracy. To live in a governmental system that is supposed to lift up the voices of all those living under it, we require a culture that allows its citizenry to speak freely and openly about the issues important to them. Exchanging ideas and viewpoints about our society allows us to be informed members of our communities, but that can only happen if we continue to have this freedom of expression.

The functioning of newspapers like The Observer is only possible with the protection of speech; it would be impossible for media outlets to be critical of our institutions, discuss pressing social issues and hold people in power accountable otherwise. Additionally, freedom of speech is essential in educational institutions, including at Case Western Reserve University, where the exploration of new ideas and fields requires a willingness to approach difficult subjects with an open mind. Academic freedom is the bedrock of our universities, enabling our professors to investigate and teach about the most controversial topics. Yet, while freedom of speech is supposedly protected by the First Amendment, it is under more attack today than it has been in decades, especially at academic institutions—and not for the reasons you might think.

It seems as if almost every thinkpiece and pundit in today’s political climate is decrying how Gen Z is preventing others from expressing their own views and professors from teaching their classes without inhibition. This base opinion should not be completely discounted as there have been some appalling cases of professors being reprimanded or fired for just doing their job. However, this is not the most pressing issue facing education and the future of our nation’s discourse. The true foe to free speech is much worse than this.

When it comes to the First Amendment, many people tend to forget that it was not meant to protect you from public scrutiny—it is meant to protect you from tyrannical governments. And currently, the United States’ government is acting less and less concerned about adhering to this amendment’s core tenets.

Let’s start with the most basic suppression of speech in education: book bans. This past year has seen a dramatic increase in the number of books banned in schools across the nation. States like Florida and Texas have lists consisting of hundreds of banned books, all in order to prevent the spread of certain opinions and ideas. Beyond that, a new law recently passed in Florida has made it so that all school books have to be approved by a state government employee. As a result, teachers across Florida have been forced to remove all books from their school’s library shelves in order to comply with these new regulations.

So, what is this speech that is supposedly so flagrant that we need the government to regulate it? What harmful ideas do we need to remove from the public discourse? What nefarious content do we need state governments to fervently protect our innocent children from?

Well, it’s unfortunately not surprising that this so-called corrupting content that typically relates to LGBTQIA+ issues and minorities is overwhelmingly the target. How awful that Generations Z and Alpha, the most diverse and openly queer generations in American history, are reading about characters and issues related to their identities. 

However, it goes beyond book bans—we are now seeing state governments directly regulate curriculums and topics that students and teachers can discuss. Most famously, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis passed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, preventing discussion of LGBTQIA+ topics within schools. A similar bill was passed regulating speech about systematic racism within schools, further suppressing discussion of important topics with fear of governmental repercussions. Florida’s laws have even caused private entities like the College Board to tailor what curriculums they offer, such as for their AP African American Studies course. Due to fear of the government’s wrath, the College Board pared down discussion of queer studies, police brutality and reparations. This directly affects what students are taught, what they can discuss and how prepared they are to enter a diverse world wherein they must confront injustices. While governments have a right to regulate the content taught to students, it becomes an issue when it is done with an agenda that seeks to censor ideas and facts that challenge their power structures. With the success the Florida state government has had in suppressing speech within their schools, other states across the country have followed in its example—all testing the waters for how strictly they are able to control student speech and thought. Florida seems to be leading the way in this movement to fight the continually evolving “bogeyman of wokeness,” meaning we should pay very close attention to what Florida and DeSantis do in the future.

To take this censorship even further, Florida is stepping up their attacks on free speech by going after higher education. New College, a public college in Florida known for its open and progressive culture, is now under attack by a state government that wishes to turn it into a brainwashed institution of government-approved values. Over the past month, DeSantis has overhauled the college’s trustees, had the college’s president removed and replaced college officials with conservative idealogues. Along with that, he has also unveiled a curriculum based on “Western civilization courses,” and eliminated diversity and inclusion from any aspect of it. Additionally, faculty tenure protections are being abolished and students and faculty have been asked about their political leanings, as well as if they are transgender or not. This is an egregious act of using government power to promote a certain form of speech, punishing those who don’t agree with conservative state values.

If you ask DeSantis or his supporters, they’ll claim that they are actually stopping indoctrination from happening within education by banning discussion of systematic racism, intersectionality and queer theory. Their doublethink has somehow made them believe, at least outwardly, that banning certain authors and concepts enables freedom of speech. Furthermore, apparently using the power of the state to intimidate and punish educators is “necessary” to prevent indoctrination. To state the obvious, indoctrination is when you ban certain ideologies, not the other way around.

All this makes for a very scary picture. While the words authoritarianism and fascism are not to be used lightly, we are now truly seeing governments in the U.S. veer in that direction. This is what the First Amendment is supposed to protect us from, not being “canceled” on Twitter. Until we truly care and stand up against injustice, freedom of speech is just an idea and not  necessarily a reality.