It’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling like you can’t make a difference. After all, you are only one person, so there’s only so much you can do, right?
Universities nationwide have very restrictive speech codes on campus, silencing students who pay thousands of dollars to go there. This was the case at East Carolina University, but I knew my rights. Being at a public university, I knew I could make a difference and make a change.
I started a coalition. I reached out to all of the special interest groups on campus and received support from the Black Student Union, Asian Student Organization, and the College Republicans, among others.
We organized a pro-free speech event. The logistics were arranged and the activists were fueled. So, you can imagine how I felt when I received a call from a school administrator on the way back from Thanksgiving Break, warning me that my demonstration would be accompanied by disciplinary sanctions.
After much thought and consultation, I decided to hold off. We lost the advantage of a well-timed demonstration, but we gained the attention of the university and access to their influence. They seemed to take us seriously and were willing to cooperate, so I kept the protest card in my back pocket. They bought themselves time, but if they delayed or prolonged the issue too much, then we planned to act.
Time passed. Months went by and meetings grew further apart. The school’s lawyers made excuses and our efforts were getting nowhere. I decided to take matters into my own hands. I had to turn up the heat. I organized multiple events, hosted a debate, collected thousands of free speech petitions, called my legislators, tabled and held weekly meetings.
There were two distinct events that made the biggest impact.
The first event took place halfway through the spring semester. For months, I kept the identity of our scheduled speaker a mystery. After I announced that our highly-anticipated guest would be Tomi Lahren, half of the school was in outrage. Opponents were calling to “wreak havoc,” others threatening to “burn the university down,” and a few people even organized petitions to cancel her appearance.
Free speech was once again at the forefront of the conversation and the seemingly non-stop coverage led to the introduction of a North Carolina House bill, focused on restoring and preserving free speech throughout the state.
Secondly, as a Representative in the Student Government Association (SGA), I quickly sponsored a resolution stating that ECU’s SGA, and the 29,000 students that we represent, supported the bill. It passed unanimously. If this wouldn’t force the school to act, then nothing would.
Exactly two weeks later, I received news that I had been waiting five long months to hear; on April 19, ECU announced their new policies, abolishing restrictive speech zones and eliminating vague and confusing language. Shortly after, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), changed ECU from a “yellow light rating” to a “green light rating.”
We won the war without ever firing a bullet — but it wasn’t without months of dedication and smart, restless activism. Our free speech movement at ECU was successful because we kept pressure on the administration and kept the issue of restricted speech in the spotlight at all times.
It is often said that the liberal college hurts the liberal student. This is because higher education has become an echo chamber in many ways. With an overwhelming number of liberal professors in academia, the average student is only exposed to one side.
The threat to censor speech poses a problem to intellectual growth. College is meant to be a marketplace for ideas that allows concepts and viewpoints to be challenged and judged based on empirical evidence — thus creating an environment for the strongest theories to survive.
When universities restrict speech on campus, they are doing an injustice to the very students they pledge to support. After all, if we censor speech because it’s deemed offensive, sooner or later, we will all be left in silence.
For students who believe in free speech and rigorous debate, but feel stifled by liberal peer pressure or administrative red-tape, you can make a difference for first amendment rights on campus — just look at what we did at ECU.