By Lydia Timmins, RTDNA Contributor
College campuses may seem to be places where speech is as free as it can be. Young people discovering new facts, coming in contact with new cultures and people. In some cases, that leads to opening of young minds. But in other cases, the basic tenets of free speech seem to be failing. Graduation speakers cancelled, trigger warnings on the syllabus, faculty members fired for engaging in what they consider to be their right to speak freely about issues that concern them.
In light of this, my campus celebrated Free Speech Day on October 20, 2015. Colleagues in the Department of Communication and the Center for Political Communication created a spot on campus for students to speak their mind. In 15 words or 15 seconds, students, faculty and staff had the chance to say something that matters to them. We provided a backdrop, and let it unfold.
Some students chose to address issues on our campus, from security to student loans. Students addressed concerns about health care and their families. Some spoke of the need for Millennials to care about the country and vote. Pro gun rights, pro gun control. A person’s right to choose what happens to his or her body. Equality. Others cracked jokes. One explained the two parts of a turtle’s shell (clearly just finished an exam…)
All of these expressions of opinion mattered. I forced all my classes to participate. Some students were worried--what if they get in trouble for saying something? Argh! That’s the point! You are free to speak your opinion!
As a Department, we had a concern about someone using the platform for hate speech. No one did. One young man said he didn’t want to speak because he might say something that offends another person. “Go ahead!”, we told him, “That’s what free speech is!” But he declined.
Listening in on the students’ conversations, I was pleased that some of them realized what a gift it is to be able to say anything in public. Several of my students thanked me for the event, and the chance to engage in their Constitutional right.
But not enough. Many more students walked past our display, earbuds in, phones out… ignoring everything around them. The stereotypical self-absorbed Millennial college student. Do I think they are bad people? No, just not paying attention. In class, I quote statistics from the Committee to Protect Journalists about how many of our colleagues die while covering the news. These facts are generally a shock to students. Why would someone kill a journalist? They don’t understand why journalists seek the truth--and are willing to die to tell the truth.
As we celebrate Free Speech, this week and every week, we should remember the great power we have as journalists over the airwaves and through the ether. We have the power to speak, to be heard. We have an even greater responsibility as well. To tell the stories that need to be told. To keep our democracy strong.
Lydia R. Timmins is an assistant professor of communication at the University of Delaware.