Colleges are free speech offenders in this year’s Muzzles

Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression director Josh Wheeler discusses the stifling of free speech on college campuses, with Virginia’s University of Mary Washington and Old Dominion University making the list.
Photo Cara Salpini Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression director Josh Wheeler discusses the stifling of free speech on college campuses, with Virginia’s University of Mary Washington and Old Dominion University making the list. Photo Cara Salpini

“The answer to speech you don’t like is more speech, not censorship.” That was Josh Wheeler’s message to an April 20 gathering for the 10th anniversary of the Free Speech Wall on the Downtown Mall.

And it’s a message directed to colleges and universities, 50 of which were the recipients of the 25th annual Jefferson Muzzle awards for stifling free speech across the county.

Wheeler, the director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, says there were “unprecedented” affronts to free speech and cites several cases in which not only school administration, but sometimes students themselves were stifling free speech.

“They don’t want to be offended,” Wheeler says of college students at Clemson, Emory and several other universities who requested that the popular app Yik Yak be banned on campus because it was offensive.

Administrators at the University of Oklahoma got a Muzzle for punishing students who chanted a racist song. That caused a “domino effect” at other campuses, which proceeded to suspend free speech in similar ways, says Wheeler.

“Just because something is inappropriate doesn’t mean it’s not protected,” he says, stressing the importance of maintaining the First Amendment at college campuses.

Pointing to the wall behind him, Wheeler recalls his fears when it was erected in 2006. “My biggest concern was not what would be written on it,” he says, “but that after six months no one would be writing on it anymore.”

Ten years later, the wall remains colored with writing of all kinds and Wheeler notes that they have to wash it every couple of days to make room for more expression.

“Every college campus in the country ought to have one of these,” he says, smiling.

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