Students were lined up at the center of campus to offer their opinions regarding the 2020 presidential election. My team and I at Bluestone Communications, JMU’s student-run public relations firm, held a “spirit rock” painting to display these opinions and demonstrate that regardless of where you stand, your ideas deserve to be heard. The very next morning, the spirit rock was defaced, and our promotion of free expression was covered in heaps of black and green paint. 

The countless hours we put into survey research, focus groups and free speech events suddenly felt meaningless. It only took 12 hours for our voices to be silenced. 

Attacks on freedom of speech aren’t limited to JMU; they are threatening the fundamental rights we have as citizens all over the U.S. In regard to the increasing presence of “cancel culture” on social media and the rise in party divisions among today’s youth, free speech is jeopardized on college campuses perhaps now more than ever. In the last four years, college students have become less and less likely to agree that free speech is secure. In 2016, 73% said it was secure, in contrast with 64% in 2017 and 59% currently. 

In today’s world, any topic, regardless of its nature, is politicized. John Stewart, a well-known, left-leaning political commentator, stated he believed COVID-19 originated in a Wuhan lab. Former President Donald Trump shared the same opinion, and John Stewart subsequently faced huge backlash from the left. Stewart believes that anti-Trump sentiment has led to many on the left tying all conservatives in with Trump’s often offensive opinions. 

“There’s now this idea that anyone who voted for him has to be defined by the worst of his rhetoric,” Stewart said. “In the liberal community, you hate the idea of creating people as a monolith … but everybody who voted for Trump is a monolith — is a racist.”

This view of conservatives as a monolith is destructive to productive discussion in the classroom. It’s incredibly important that we foster a respectful and inclusive environment in classrooms. The viewpoints of students from all over the political spectrum deserve to be heard, whether we agree with them or not. 

Students are reluctant to express support for Trump or the conservative party, as these views are often unwelcome and invalidated in today’s youth culture. It was found that 58% of conservative students feel uncomfortable offering their ideas on controversial or sensitive topics in the classroom, while only 34% of liberal students feel uncomfortable. 

Additionally, students report feeling uneasy voicing their beliefs due to the classroom climate. While around two-thirds of students with liberal or independent political ideologies feel that professors foster a classroom environment where people with unfavorable views would feel comfortable sharing their opinions, less than half of conservative students believe so. Professors should foster an environment where students aren’t told what to think but how to think. 

The existence of speech codes, safe spaces and microaggressions on campus has limited student’s exposure to diverse ideas. While their intended purpose may be pure, they prevent students from cultivating their thoughts and participating in the political process. Throughout history, students have used their First Amendment rights to call national attention to a wide range of issues, such as University of Washington students protesting the Vietnam War in 1969. 

Politics today are ridden with gridlock, an unwillingness to compromise and unproductive discourse. For those students who plan to enter a career in politics, the current political climate makes it of the utmost importance that the seeds of critical thought and constructive discourse are planted. We are meant to challenge our own beliefs over time; they’re not meant to remain stagnant. Our ideas shouldn’t be free from the challenges of others, either. How else can we know where we truly stand on an issue if we haven’t heard all sides to it? 

The day students defaced the “spirit rock,” I simply wanted to explain why it’s vital that we let students’ voices be heard. One quote spoken by Evelyn Beatrice Hall perfectly illustrates the true nature of our country’s free speech: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”