OP-ED: It’s Time to Prioritize Health—Healthy Discourse, That Is

Colleges are hoping you won’t notice that they still do not let some outside speakers come to campus. Or that you will not question that you can only gather in small groups where social distancing is possible.

It is hard to believe we are approaching the two-year anniversary of “Two Weeks to Slow the Spread.” A lot has happened in our world since then.

For a moment, consider all we’ve been through. We ran out of toilet paper. Tiger King took Netflix by storm. A cargo ship got stuck and shut down the economy for a week.

Harry and Meghan quit the royal family in search of privacy, then signed a Netflix deal, wrote a book, and gave Oprah a tell-all interview. Britney was freed. We lost some celebrities who felt like part of the family.  

And on a more serious note, we saw racial justice protests sweep the country, Biden was elected, America (disastrously) withdrew from Afghanistan, gas prices went up, and parents finally started waking up to what is happening in their children’s schools.

All of this is on top of the never-ending COVID policy debates.

This time has been particularly rough for college students.

I feel exhausted just thinking about the past two years. And I’m not a college student who has been forced to take online classes in my parents’ basement.

Even more students graduated high school unceremoniously and, two years later, haven’t even met their professors in person or smelled a frat house.

Though the last two years prove that it is important not to sweat the small stuff, there is one thing students absolutely must prioritize: their freedom of speech.

Now, more than ever, students need to know what their rights are on campus.

Colleges are supposed to be the marketplace of ideas where students are exposed to all sorts of ideas—good, bad, and ugly. Their college years may be the first and only time when they can meet people from all over and learn from them.

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For that reason, it is vital that colleges protect students’ right to engage in open discussion.

Due to the high stakes involved, the next part I write directly to students reading this article.

If your college is like most, your administrators are hoping that after the last few years you’ve had, you don’t care so much about speaking out.

They are hoping you won’t notice that they still have a COVID reporting form available online, where other students can report you for violating campus health measures and shut down your speech activities at the same time.

Colleges are hoping you won’t notice that they still do not let some outside speakers come to campus. Or that you will not question that you can only gather in small groups where social distancing is possible.

They are hoping you won’t complain when they tack on extra tabling fees. Or that you will agree to stop distributing flyers on campus because they weren’t approved in advance.

[RELATED: Brandeis U: Don't say 'policeman' or other 'offensive' language]

Or that you won’t seek clarification, push back, and assert your First Amendment rights when a policy just doesn’t seem reasonable.

But you know better than that.

Every year, Southeastern Legal Foundation trains thousands of students to recognize moments when college policies seem to infringe on their First Amendment rights.

We call those “red flags.”

Your red flags should be up. They should be up if an administrator says you need to move your table to another part of campus. They should be up if you are struggling to find an advisor for your student organization. They should be up if you can’t locate your school policies.  

When implemented together, policies that seem like minor inconveniences actually do silence students. It is imperative that every student stays on guard and aware of little openings where schools can chip away at your rights.

The minute we get complacent about our First Amendment rights, we give the government permission to censor us. And when we give the government permission to censor us, there is a greater risk that we will all be required to think and act a certain way.

That would be far worse than anything we’ve experienced over the last two years.

So don’t be complacent. Don’t let them silence you. Don’t let them cancel you. You have rights—exercise them.