Chris Gray, Ph.D. 

Founding President, Erie County Community College 

No one understands freedom of speech. Bold claim, I know, but hear me out. There’s a lot of chatter lately about “restoring” freedom of speech, accompanied by vague references to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the way it’s being “trampled.” The problem is that most people making reference to this right haven’t actually read the provision to which they refer.   

All too often, the First Amendment is used as a sword — a weapon to justify all sorts of hatefulness and bad behavior. As anyone who has taken a first-year Constitutional Law course will tell you, however, the First Amendment is intended to be a shield instead. It’s to be used for defense, not offense.   

Let me explain.  It feels like every few days, the news highlights another First Amendment case that has nothing to do with what the actual text of the First Amendment says. This misunderstanding is perpetuated by the popular press, and both exploded and exploited by social media, which is where the most inflammatory First Amendment claims tend to arise most frequently.  People complain about posts being taken down, profiles being flagged, and erroneous or dangerous information being removed. “Freedom of speech!” they cry. They don’t understand freedom of speech. Elon Musk purportedly bought Twitter to “restore” freedom of speech; Elon Musk doesn’t understand freedom of speech.  

Here’s what the ACTUAL First Amendment says: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.   

Note the subject of the amendment: Congress. It begins with the limitation that “Congress shall make no law.”  It’s a defense against governmental overreach and oppression; it’s shielding us as citizens from tyrannical regimes who broker no criticism of their failings. It allows for peaceful protests and a press that is not beholden to those in power. These rights as enumerated in this amendment are fundamental to the democratic principles of the United States and provide a basis for open discourse and the exchange of ideas. There are still restrictions, however, the most significant of which are on hate speech, defamation, incitement to violence, and other forms of speech that may harm individuals or undermine the collective well-being of society.    

First Amendment protections are not a license to say whatever we want to say whenever we want to say it, which is how this particular misunderstanding often turns up on social media.   What actually happens in these cases is that the person posting problematic material is violating the site’s Terms of Use (TOUs), which all users must agree to abide by in order to use the platform. Think of it as a contract — a promise to engage in acceptable behavior as a condition of using the tool — and when a user breaks that promise, s/he is in breach of contract.   

In reality, First Amendment rights are very limited, which is why employers can terminate employees and schools can discipline students for saying things that are threatening or constitute hate speech. The famous example of yelling “fire” in a crowded theater exists because unregulated speech can be dangerous or even deadly; this is the textbook application of the “clear and present danger” rule on speech limitation. Freedom of speech is a right that protects us from governmental overreach only; apart from that, our language can be and is curtailed in a multiplicity of ways on a daily basis.   

Contrast that to academic freedom, which is the principle that scholars, researchers, and educational institutions should be free to pursue knowledge, engage in intellectual inquiry, and express their ideas without fear of censorship or retribution. It encompasses the idea that academics should have the autonomy to conduct research, teach, publish, and engage in intellectual debates without interference from external pressures, whether they are political, ideological, or otherwise. It’s a subset of freedom of speech and is much more narrowly defined as it specifically protects the rights and responsibilities of scholars within the context of higher education institutions. It ensures that academics can pursue scholarly endeavors and contribute to the extant body of knowledge without undue influence or limitations. 

Academic freedom is also what allows college faculty to teach the content of their courses as they see fit provided that they are satisfying the approved course learning objectives. They could use a mixture of lecture, reading, video, and interactive pedagogical techniques; they could require controversial course materials and textbooks; they could require students to interact with material that may be uncomfortable or offensive. This principle allows faculty the professional freedom to run their courses their way, and it’s at the heart of what makes a college experience, fostering a vibrant intellectual climate and facilitating the discovery of truth.  

Both academic freedom and freedom of speech enable scholars, students, and the general public to engage in critical thinking, challenge established norms, and contribute to societal progress through the exploration of new ideas and knowledge. However, it is important to note that neither of these freedoms is or can ever be absolute. Balancing the right to free expression with the need to maintain a respectful, inclusive, and safe environment is a complex task that involves navigating societal values, legal frameworks, and ethical considerations. I like to think of it this way: while politicians fight through war, we at academic institutions fight to work through good ideas. Ours is an ideological battle, in other words, in which we encourage the free exchange of ideas while ensuring that discussions are conducted in a civil and respectful manner. 

We are drawing heavily on both academic freedom and freedom of speech here in our work. Both freedoms contribute to the advancement of knowledge, the exchange of ideas, and the cultivation of an informed citizenry. Safeguarding these rights while considering their limitations ensures a robust intellectual climate where diverse voices can be heard, debated, and respected. We foster intellectual rigor by promoting critical thinking and evidence-based arguments. While we encourage open discourse, we also expect that ideas are supported by empirical evidence and scholarly research. This helps maintain high standards of academic integrity and prevents the dissemination of misinformation or unverified assertions — the kind that often prompt unwarranted and nonsensical free speech claims on social media.   

At the end of the day, academic institutions like EC3 aim to strike a balance between promoting open discourse and maintaining professional conduct by creating an environment that values diverse perspectives, intellectual rigor, and respect for others. We want our students to emerge from our classrooms ready to be informed thinkers in a world of noise and misinformation. This is integral to our mission.