There are nine practices that could significantly improve the climate of free speech on American college campuses nationwide. This, according to a report released by Middle Tennessee State University’s (MTSU) Free Speech Center last week, aimed at offering best practices for First Amendment advocacy, activism, and engagement amongst college students.
The nine practices proposed were: physical environments incorporating the First Amendment, social media engagement, cultural boundary bridging, writing exercises, case studies, targeted campus events, hands-on engagement, building bridges, and a combination of assessment and iteration. Examples of these practices included establishing monuments enumerating the First Amendment rights, or offering exercises where students experience loss of these rights momentarily by exchanging their First Amendment freedoms for a free lunch.
The author of the report, MTSU Associate Vice Provost for Data Analytics and Student Success Dr. Brian Hinote, compiled data from 10 universities across the country that had previously engaged in the center’s 1 for All educational campaign. According to a subsequent interview between Free Speech Center Director Ken Paulson and Hinote, campus focus groups and interviews aligned with consistent themes that informed the best practices that were ultimately proposed.
The report itself opened up with a history of the First Amendment. Mainly, it focused on the amendment’s founding and subsequent government attempts to suppress it. Notably, the report criticized previous President Donald Trump’s rhetoric: it claimed that Trump’s condemnation of the mainstream media was an attack on First Amendment principles and liberties. However, it also conceded that his speech might also be “legitimate and warranted criticism of the contemporary press.”
In that portion of its opening pages, the report didn’t mention previous President Barack Obama’s impactful and subversive war on the press. The Obama Administration infamously weaponized the Espionage Act to ferret out and punish government sources leaking to the press, and to justify surveillance and seizures on the press itself.
Hinote didn’t offer a response by press time when The Tennessee Star inquired about the decision to include behavior by Trump and not Obama when discussing First Amendment jeopardizations.
The report also highlighted a variety of research showing how little the American population knows of their guaranteed rights. Hinote pointed out a paradoxical mindset shared by a majority of college students: the same percentage that believed in free speech also believed in the prohibition of racial slurs or costumes and the establishment of “safe spaces” void of free speech.
In a statement to The Star, Paulson explained that the report builds upon the center’s work over the past year to encourage First Amendment appreciation and understanding on campuses.
“At the core of the report is a recommendation that universities throughout the country affirmatively engage students on First Amendment topics,” explained Paulson. “We’ve been doing work along these lines for the past 18 months and have seen dozens of campuses participate. We’re doing outreach now to campuses across the country, urging administrators, faculty and students to hold high visibility educational events on freedom of speech in the 2021-2022 school year.”
Paulson added that higher education should practice what it preaches when it comes to honoring the free flow and exchange of ideas.
“Too many Americans – on campus and off – take our fundamental freedoms of expression for granted. No one of any political persuasion should be afraid to speak out on campus and it’s our hope that more universities will make a public commitment to ensuring the free flow of ideas, as Middle Tennessee State University has,” stated Paulson. “You can’t pay lip service to free speech. You have to make sure it’s a part of the university’s core values.”
In addition to the report, the center has compiled an encyclopedia on the First Amendment, which includes court cases, laws, and individuals concerning those five rights.
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Corinne Murdock is a reporter at The Tennessee Star and the Star News Network. Follow her latest on Twitter, or email tips to [email protected].
Image “Ken Paulson and Dr. Brian Hinote” by MTSU Free Speech Center.