I’ve been a student at UVa-Wise since 2014. Every year since then, I have heard a small number of students, staff and faculty of the college criticize the theatre department because of a professor’s beliefs, the class material or a specific theme addressed in a production. Each time, I notice that someone else eventually replies in defense, “But they have a right to free speech!”
Why does free speech matter? Is it merely a convenient statement used to shut down arguments? I believe that free speech functions as the backbone of the American educational system, reinforcing and structuring the learning institution without anyone acknowledging it. In the case of the theatre department, free speech not only widens the department’s educational and artistic scope to include topics that make others uncomfortable, but also protects those who disagree with ideas expressed on and offstage.
A person’s ability to publicly express an opinion or engage in symbolic action without government interference is a form of superpower.
Often, students learn how vital free speech truly is as soon they would like to challenge content on campus. Because of their First Amendment right to free speech, they can protest here. There is a constant protest against white supremacy going on in the windows of Professor Hunt’s office, and students held similar signs on campus a few times last year in public anti-racism demonstrations as well. A lack of speech is also protected under this amendment. One can choose not to engage in symbolic actions, such as deciding to kneel during the National Anthem as a form of protest against inequality. Additionally, students can wear politically affiliated clothing or symbols that challenge traditional views.
The limitations of free speech on campus will always be subject to debate, especially when the speech or symbolic act in question disturbs one’s deeply held beliefs.
However, if one’s free speech does not put other people in imminent danger or obstruct others’ rights, it is against the current interpretations of the First Amendment for the government to uphold such censorship.
That doesn’t mean there are no consequences for any type of speech or symbolism. While the government doesn’t limit one’s free speech unless it constitutes a direct threat, individuals have the right to express dissenting views, especially when the opinions espoused are dehumanizing to others. This leaves plenty of room for others to challenge the beliefs they recognize are problematic.
Free speech is an integral part of the college’s identity because each person is a collage of ideas. Students, faculty and staff bring their unique perspectives to UVa-Wise, and the exchanges between them strengthens the living body of the college.