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The Regression of Free Expression
March 15, 2001

By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
contributor to

Creativity. It is one of the greatest attributes of the human person. It is also one of the most mysterious.

When a composer pens a powerful symphony or a sculptor awakens an image from clay, the course through which the creator travels is unique and untraceable. Creativity is that magical quality, which is somehow able to embrace and yet simultaneously transcend all others. It is the resource that enables the insoluble to be resolved, the unattainable to be reached and the unimaginable to occur.

We know from human experience that creativity assists in a breadth of circumstances and contributes to the richness of life's engagement. Creativity sometimes manifests itself in solitude, but more often than not, its fruits are products of past or present interaction with others.

It is difficult to think of a situation where creativity is more essential to a triumphant conclusion than when human beings attempt to resolve problems. The resolution of dilemmas is most frequently assisted by unfettered communication. The free flow of ideas facilitates generation of options. Options allow for broader analysis. Evaluation of choices ultimately leads to the alternative that will yield the highest and best outcome.

When we remove certain topics from discussion, we suppress liberated thought and interrupt the inspirational process. But inspiration is the instrument that so often provides the leverage for human action. In stifling meaningful discourse, we potentially rob ourselves of our finest responses.

A trend that runs counter to the ideal of unencumbered communication is gaining favor in the most peculiar of places. It is the setting where we were traditionally prompted to explore horizons, push past boundaries of conventional thought and release our inner genius. It is the place where we came to expect recognition of our uniqueness and encouragement toward our individual dreams. It is the haven where we felt secure enough to let our minds run free and speak accordingly. It is that previous bastion of limitless cerebral activity - the school campus.

We are witnessing a slow but steady assemblage of impediments to creative expression. Ironically, some of the same people who sought to break the rules of convention in the name of freedom during the 1960s are now advocates of a contrary direction. In many of our nation's institutions of learning, emotion reigns over reason. Amidst this confusion, the First Amendment is being cast off as an old relic from colonial times.

But the very essence of freedom embodies an unrestricted exchange of information. At its core is the notion that a portion of speech that we seek to protect will be offensive to some people who hear it. In our quest to honor liberty, we accept this unwanted by-product for the more noble cause.

It appears as though the goal at some of our campuses is to create an atmosphere where, with regard to thought and speech, all students stay within the confines of an artificial construct of the guardians of hurt feelings. The enduring slogan, I do not agree with what you say but defend and cherish your right to say it, has no place in such a sanitized wonderland.

If this proposed agenda sounds far-fetched, we need only look at some recent campus events to confirm our suspicions.

In Boulder, Colorado, a third grader's science project was pulled by school officials. It was deemed offensive because a pair of Barbie dolls with differing ethnicity were used in an attempt to determine whether skin color could influence the opinions of children and adults in regard to the perception of prettiness.

In a move affecting Penn State University, an anti-harassment policy was created, which bans speech that is offensive or belittling to an individual. Students who make comments of a negative nature about a person's sexual orientation risk expulsion from school, without regard for moral convictions that may motivate discussion.

In Orange County, California, the Newport-Mesa School Board expanded its zero-tolerance policy in an effort to eliminate bullying behavior. Students can be suspended or expelled for inappropriate gestures or intimidating threats toward classmates. The erring categories are sufficiently vague to encompass a wide range of pupil commentary.

These are but a few of the kinds of encroachment upon thought and expression that appear to be extending to various levels within many of our schools. If this type of approach seems unsound, what action would be beneficial? If expression happens to be coarse, hostile or insulting, how should school campuses, or society as a whole, deal with such statements?

Unfortunately, a satisfactory answer will most likely remain elusive, because a trade-off is inherent within our system. We pay a price to preserve our fundamental rights.

There is a reason why freedom of expression was ranked first within our Bill of Rights. The framers of the Constitution knew that in order to effectively maintain the unalienable rights of life, liberty and property, a citizenry must be well informed. They realized that information could not be communicated if restraints on speech were allowed to proliferate. They understood that as a free nation, we would undoubtedly have a diverse range of perspectives on any given subject.

At some time, each one of us will be confronted with opinions that we find loathsome or obnoxious. To a great degree, as a country and as individuals, we must be internally strong and sufficiently courageous to absorb the blows caused by callous utterances from our fellow citizens. We can take solace in knowing that this is part of the territory that a free people occupy.

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