During an end-of-semester town hall in my political ethics class at the University of South Florida this past spring, one presentation took a turn worthy of pause. A student spoke up.
“I know I’m usually pretty quiet,” she began, “but I do have opinions about the things we discuss in class.” She usually kept these views to herself, however, because she thought that her opinions wouldn’t exactly jell with everyone else’s. But since it was the last day, she said, she shakily decided to open up.
She went on to give a thoughtful analysis of the speech in question (U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff’s closing arguments in Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial). She took a nuanced stance in his defense, communicated her views persuasively, and I saw many students nodding along. Schiff had not convinced her because Schiff focused on what Trump would be willing to do and what Trump had done in the past, rather than what he did do.
I was surprised. Our professor, Stephanie Williams of the Judy Genshaft Honors College, had made a point of encouraging us to feel empowered by our First Amendment protections and to push back on others’ views. She understood that, in addition to protecting individuals from government censorship, the First Amendment is intended to promote — not prevent — peer pushback. Given that our professor actively sought to create an environment for robust disagreement, why had this student kept her views to herself for so long?
The simple answer, I think, has been offered before: Legal protection from the government for free speech on its own is not enough. Our professor made sure we knew our opinions weren’t going to be suppressed by USF. But young people in class hesitate to share well-articulated dissent from the perceived consensus of a campus or classroom majority.
In the words of the late Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter: “The ultimate reliance for the deepest needs of civilization must be found outside their vindication in courts of law.” We need a culture that embraces free speech, not just legal vindication of the First Amendment’s protections. Student expression may be jealously guarded against government action, but thoughtful people should feel empowered to voice dissent even when they fear ostracization on social media or in the classroom.
During our current moment, it might be hard to be optimistic.
Conversations about politics feel more stressful than they used to for many Americans, and they also feel more omnipresent. Neighbors know each other’s party affiliations when such information didn’t use to matter. Social media is rife with hateful partisan rhetoric, and like-minded users fall into group polarization if exposed only to congenial points of view. Cable news organizations like Fox, MSNBC and CNN are transparently partisan. Political tensions at home are also reflected in electoral politics, with examples of real compromise across party lines in Congress few and far between.
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Elected officials outside of Congress are signaling that they notice these problems with (often misguided) action. For their part, the Florida Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis have been quick to claim that they are defending freedom of speech — but not for everyone. When HB 7 went into effect on July 1, educational instruction — including at public colleges and universities — became unlawful if it “espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates, or compels” belief in any of eight listed viewpoints. By passing expressive legislation that disfavors certain viewpoints, the Legislature’s actions undermine the nonpartisan principle for which the First Amendment stands. When only certain viewpoints are admitted to classrooms, students are robbed of the opportunity to encounter — and dismantle — arguments with which they disagree.
Despite these challenges, I still hold out hope for a culture of free speech because I know from firsthand experience that it’s possible. At weekly meetings of First Amendment Forum (1AF), a student organization that I founded in 2019, students from all backgrounds and perspectives gather to discuss and disagree about contemporary issues.
During an abortion discussion last fall, for example, one student opened with the claim “life begins at conception.” He was one of a few pro-life participants in the discussion, and I feared that a breakdown in civility was sure to come.
But what happened during this discussion surprised me. Holding their breath, students began to disagree, but they qualified their arguments by acknowledging what little common ground they had. Though their opinions on the issue did not overlap, they did agree that abortion raises tough questions. They recognized that it is difficult to decide when life begins, and they conceded that viability is an ever-shifting line in practice. From there, they went on to explain their divergent views, and our conversation moved forward.
At the end of the evening, I suspect that few students’ opinions had changed or flipped. However, this meeting proved that, even though we may begin and end discussions on opposite sides of an issue, earnestly engaging with the other side can have positive effects. If your interlocutor makes their best attempt to persuade you, and you can still come up with good reasons to maintain your view, then you can leave the interaction more confident in your position. Moreover, in a culture where opinions are often traceable only to a profile picture, real-life discussions are a good reminder that opinions come from people, with faces, personalities, and complexities.
I have often wondered to myself: What is the trick at 1AF meetings? What force tames the passion of students with fundamentally different world views?
There are probably many forces working together. After the first couple of topics we discussed, I thought perhaps that 1AF had gotten lucky and found a group of students who had a unique appreciation for civility. Then, these students started bringing their friends, and civility persisted despite fluctuations in attendance.
Civil discussion, then, involves more than just a civil disposition. Students have often told me after 1AF meetings that the disagreement is precisely what makes the conversation interesting — even when a debate touches beliefs we hold fundamentally dear. Civil discussions prove that disagreement can be invigorating and fun.
My final suspicion is that 1AF works because students feel respected and heard. Each student is equally respected as an intellectual, and each student has the chance to speak. Of course, however, it is not the case that each view offered is equally respected by the group. The arguments make that decision. But at 1AF, each student is viewed as an equal participant in pursuit of more knowledge, even if their view may not win out by the end of the meeting.
Beyond 1AF’s discussion meetings, there are other places where a culture of free speech can still be found.
I’ve witnessed some of the most open political disagreement in dorm common areas. It has interrupted late night study sessions at the library. I’ve seen it in the workplace amongst fellow student leaders. And sometimes, a culture of free speech is most alive in dim apartments late at night. For after the party scenes end, many college students know that what follows is the conversation that continues until dawn.
What unites 1AF’s discussions with these fleeting moments? I believe the answer is good faith. It is impossible to understate the essentiality of good faith for a culture of free speech, but it is also hard to define. It’s a certain mood between people.
Good faith means recognizing, as did my peers at 1AF, that good people can fall on different sides of an issue. It is making a conscious effort to “steel man” instead of “straw man,” and take on the strongest version of others’ arguments, rather than the weakest version. It is hesitating to make character judgments on the basis of political ideology. It is remembering that the moral consensus of today might be antiquated tomorrow.
Though it may feel like good faith has left American politics, discussion groups like 1AF are powerful because they put real people in touch with each other and, in doing so, foster good faith. Where there is good faith, civil discourse is still possible.
When students like me across the country who promote civil discourse leave the university and enter the broader polity, it will be our job to transplant the culture of discourse we’ve cultivated on campus and bring it into our workplaces, families and communities. If we are to promote a culture of free speech off campus, we can’t forget that humans are complex, and therefore so must be politics. Even if all ideas aren’t created equal, we can still remember that all people are equal, and therefore entitled to good faith. And finally, building a culture of free speech in an era of self-censorship will require lots of people to have the courage to be the first — but probably not the last — voice of dissent.
As I look ahead to fall, a couple of developments look promising.
There is some support for such probing dissent at the state and university level. Florida’s Board of Governors, which regulates the State University System of Florida, recently recommended that universities review their speech-related policies and adopt proactive activities to encourage civil discourse on campus. Irrespective of the Board of Governors’ intentions, universities like USF have taken up these recommendations as an opportunity to advance a culture of discourse on campus.
Before this report was released, USF had already debuted its own program: a “Free Speech on Campus” presentation to incoming students. Students were shown three common free speech dilemmas — an uninvited speaker, a disruptive student and a dispute over dorm posters. Then, 1AF leaders were invited as panelists to share our wisdom about freedom of speech in the academic setting. I am excited that this program will be shared with every incoming student at USF for years to come.
I hope that programs like USF’s Free Speech on Campus presentation will empower incoming students to be the voice of dissent on campus. Not just on the last day of class, but from day one. They might just find new friends. The day that the student in my political ethics class shared her views at our town hall, for example, she was the most popular student as we left class. A lot of students commended her for sharing her views, even though it was hard. Some wanted to talk more. And one student (three guesses who) invited her to the next meeting of First Amendment Forum.
I have hope for a culture of free speech in America. This hope is not naive; I recognize that free speech is an “eternally radical idea.” Naïveté is ignorant of circumstances; hope is optimistic in spite of them. I have observed campus discourse up close, and I have hope.
Sam Rechek is president of First Amendment Forum, a student organization at the University of South Florida in Tampa, where he is a rising senior. He is also a former summer intern at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) and the Florida First Amendment Foundation.