The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

Taking the Battle for Free Speech to K-12

Rising illiberalism hits younger students.


It's understood by most college alumni—and pretty much everyone in the general public, at this point—that open discourse is under assault in higher education, and has been for decades. From demands that speakers with unpopular opinions be disallowed on campus to strident calls for controversial professors to be fired, free speech culture has declined precipitously in academia while the corridor of acceptable opinion has uncomfortably narrowed.

Both faculty and students are clearly on notice that certain opinions are best not expressed, unless you're willing to risk consequences ranging from mild social disapproval to abject humiliation or even outright ejection. It's hardly surprising, then, that survey results reveal high rates of self-censorship in the United States, both on campus and off.

While college and graduate school-level speech censorship is widespread and well-documented, we find ourselves facing an even more alarming problem: this same restrictive culture, with its oppressive conformity demands, has already filtered down to younger students. Recent college graduates—now newly-minted teachers—are bringing these acquired academic habits and expectations to American high-, middle-, and even elementary schools.

It's one thing for college students or faculty to choose to censor their own personally-held viewpoints, but what happens when children absorb the norm of self-silencing before they've even had the opportunity to develop thoughtful, informed opinions in the first place? As deleterious as a censorship culture is among adults, who can estimate the damage inflicted, and the potential loss, when children are not even allowed the mental freedom to form their own positions independently?

For those of us who attended American schools in a different era—when cultural norms supported freedom of thought, respected freedom of conscience, and even encouraged a certain amount of spirited, rebellious disputation—it is difficult to imagine the interior gymnastics required to distort nascent thoughts into acceptable, approvable ones, and the constraint such stifling would impose on intellectual growth and personal development. (The Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz offers a detailed, disturbing examination of the contorted thought processes produced under authoritarian pressure in his Nobel Prize winning book The Captive Mind.) Presumably, at minimum, understanding and self-awareness would be stunted. Specious reasoning and internal contradictions would go unchallenged. Students who are not allowed to explore subjects fully, vigorously, and honestly would gain only a shallow, cursory grasp of difficult, nuanced topics. Extrapolating from the individual across an entire society, it is hard to calculate the diminishment this would portend for a free society.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), where I work, fights to protect the First Amendment and other constitutional rights of students and faculty on American college campuses, since the restriction of open dialogue diminishes the educational experience of students and infringes on the academic freedom of faculty. Years of hands-on work in this arena made it abundantly clear that many of the students arriving on campus with anti-speech attitudes developed them well before matriculation. Recognizing that it would be difficult to win this battle without addressing illiberalism at younger ages, FIRE expanded its mission and I joined to launch its High School Outreach program in 2018. My work includes developing curricular alternatives and other discourse-defending resources to reach and inform K-12 educators and constituents.

Because the K-12 arena is dramatically different from higher education — from its inherent purpose and function to the composition of its student body — it must be approached with awareness of the greater limits on educator speech, the deference due to the natural vulnerability of minors compelled to attend, and the rights of their parents. One valuable resource, from FIRE's President and CEO Greg Lukianoff, outlines 10 Principles for Empowering the American Mind and Opposing Thought Reform in K-12 Education. His first principle — "no compelled speech, thought, or belief" — reminds us of the important precedent set by West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette and reaffirms the basic right of students not to be compelled into saluting or genuflecting for causes or ideas.

In Barnette, Justice Robert H. Jackson, writing for the Court, warned against using public education as a political indoctrination tool:

Free public education, if faithful to the ideal of secular instruction and political neutrality, will not be partisan or enemy of any class, creed, party, or faction. If it is to impose any ideological discipline, however, each party or denomination must seek to control, or failing that, to weaken the influence of the educational system. Observance of the limitations of the Constitution will not weaken government in the field appropriate for its exercise.

This series of blog posts will examine ways in which K-12 indoctrination efforts shortchange students, undermine their education, interfere with school-home trust and communication, and erode community support. More importantly, it will offer solutions and practical paths forward.

While there will always be competing ideas of exactly how, and precisely what, we should teach in our elementary and secondary institutions, we can rely on shared common (small "l") liberal principles to guide our decision-making processes and to govern the necessary, open discussions on this essential topic in a democratic society.