Photo courtesy of MTSU News
MTSU College of Media and Entertainment Dean Ken Paulson testified in front of a Congressional committee in Washington, D.C., Wednesday to provide expertise on First Amendment rights and issues on college campuses. While the Committee on Education and the Workforce, chaired by Rep. Virginia Foxx, has considered taking action to prevent censorship of First Amendment rights on college campuses, Paulson says that the issues can be solved through education, not legislation.
The hearing allowed members of the committee to hear from free speech experts in order to determine if certain campus policies restrict free-speech rights of students.
“We’ve all seen these high-visibility cases where a highly controversial speaker comes to a university, and then there are students who are so upset they start shouting and try to shout down the speaker,” Paulson told Sidelines. “We also see in a handful of campuses major protests with people demanding that someone who has been invited be disinvited. So, members of Congress seem to believe it’s a trend. They asked our panel, ‘What can be done about it?'”
Paulson told the committee that he doesn’t see issues of heavy-handed policies from administrators and students shutting down controversial speakers as being prevalent on most college campuses.
“I honestly don’t believe there’s an epidemic of suppression or intolerance in the nation’s universities,” Paulson said in his testimony.
He said that, instead of suppressing speakers, many students are more concerned with “paying for school, staying in school and making good enough grades to get a job when they leave.”
Paulson told Sidelines that he has never spoken to a student at MTSU who has complained about being censored.
“If you recall the debate over Forrest Hall, there was a vigorous debate, and sometimes outspoken critics turned up in the audience,” Paulson said. “But, everyone had their say. That was actually the point of my testimony. I think Congress is misreading the situation. There are 3,004 public universities in America … The number of these incidents amount to a handful.”
Instances of controversy do occur at MTSU, such as the many protests against the name of Forrest Hall, which was named for Robert Bedford Forrest, a Confederate Army general and leader of the Ku Klux Klan. However, Paulson says that these incidents have allowed students to practice their First Amendment rights in a healthy way.
“I was explaining to Congress that they don’t need to do anything,” Paulson told Sidelines. “What they need to do is focus on grade schools rather than on colleges. We need to make sure that children in grades K-12 are getting the kind of civic education that allows them to understand how America works.”
Paulson said in his testimony that many students need to better understand the freedoms that they have, citing surveys that display abysmal knowledge of First Amendment rights from Americans.
According to the 2018 State of The First Amendment survey from the First Amendment Center of the Freedom Forum Institute, which is conducted every year, 40 percent of Americans cannot name a single freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment, and 36 percent were only able to name one.
“The First Amendment is a pretty simple set of principles,” Paulson said. “You don’t have to go read books or do research. It all comes down to this: We live in a country that has promised everyone they can say what they want, they can write what they want, they can pray to the god of their choice. In addition, if they are not happy with the way things are going, they can petition for change. And, if they are truly unhappy, they can gather in public and raise their voices in protest. It’s that simple … We just need to remember to respect and protect these freedoms.”
Paulson has served as dean of MTSU’s College of Media and Entertainment for five years and is a former editor-in-chief of USA Today. During his time at USA Today, he founded the “1 For All” campaign, which provides educational materials and lesson plans on First Amendment rights and has since moved to MTSU. He also serves as the president of the Freedom Forum Institute’s First Amendment Center.
Paulson’s full testimony can be viewed here.
To contact news Editor Caleb Revill, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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