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September 18, 2018

DeVos’s Free-Speech Promotion

The secretary of education makes important remarks about our Constitution and schools.

America’s education system has been not only commandeered but constitutionally misappropriated now for many decades. This is in large measure a corollary of control by the Education Department. One particularly alarming upshot of the federal government’s (and activists’) navigating is that student rights are being undermined. It’s probably a pipe dream to expect the Education Department to ever be shuttered, but Secretary Betsy DeVos clearly understands the ill effects of “government muscle.”

So it was appropriate that she devoted Constitution Day to castigating censorship and coddling while also advocating free speech. She declared:

Too many administrators have been complicit in creating or facilitating a culture that makes it easier for the “heckler” to win. One prevalent way is when administrators charge students exorbitant fees to host an event or speaker they arbitrarily deem “controversial.” This way, administrators can duck accusations of censorship based on content and instead claim that reasonable “time, place, and manner” restrictions are appropriate. …

Administrators too often attempt to shield students from ideas they subjectively decide are “hateful” or “offensive” or “injurious” or ones they just don’t like. This patronizing practice assumes students are incapable of grappling with, learning from, or responding to ideas with which they disagree. … A solution won’t come from defunding an institution of learning or merely getting the words of a campus policy exactly right. Solutions won’t come from new laws from Washington, DC or from a “speech police” at the U.S. Department of Education. Because what’s happening on campuses today is symptomatic of a civic sickness.

The ability to respectfully deliberate, discuss and disagree — to model the behavior on display in Independence Hall — has been lost in too many places. Some are quick to blame a “tribalization” of America where groupthink reigns. Others point to the rise of social media where, under the cloak of anonymity, sarcasm and disdain dominate. Certainly, none of that improves our discourse. But I think the issue is more fundamental than that. And it’s one governments cannot solve. The issue is that we have abandoned truth.

DeVos also lamented that “all too often, students do not learn about our Constitution and our freedoms in the first place.” And as National Review’s David French observes, “There are powerful reasons for America’s Bill of Rights, yet students not only don’t know these reasons, they’re ignorant of the rights.” So it’s little wonder, as DeVos relayed, “that over half of students surveyed think views different from their own aren’t protected by the Constitution.”

The reason conservatives oppose the federal government’s control over education is constitutional limits on government’s power. And that concern is born out by the fact that government so callously ignores teaching the tenets of the Constitution. Censorship is merely a symptom of a central government’s natural inclination to impose statism.

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