The Sewanee Purple clarifies the nature of free speech

By The Sewanee Purple Editorial Board

At The Sewanee Purple, we approach issues of freedom of expression with the utmost care. As journalists, we value our ability to express ourselves and report on topics that concern the student body. Truly, the preservation of this range of freedoms—freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of information—is vital to the wellbeing of our newspaper and, we believe, the community at large. However, our concept of free expression here at Sewanee differs fundamentally from the freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment.

In the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment reads: “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.” This fundamental right of citizens of the United States of America allows individuals, organizations, and newspapers not totally unlike our own to express opinions and ideas without fear of legal consequences. Yet the ability of those peoples to take advantage of this right is contingent upon their accurate understanding of precisely what, how, and in which contexts those rights are protected.

If we attended a public university, we would possess a wide range of rights protected by the First Amendment—among them freedom of the press. The Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District affirmed constitutional rights for students of public schools. The decision in that case, from 1969, asserted, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Sewanee, however, is a private institution that does not guarantee freedom of expression in the same capacity to its students. If anything, the U.S. government protects the rights of private organizations and institutions like The University of the South to define their own guidelines under which employees, members, or students operate. At the most basic level, the university alone affords students not only a certain amount of freedom, but even the funds which allow specific student organizations to operate and express themselves—the Purple being one of many examples.

This is far from a resignation to the forces of censorship, though. Indeed, a cornerstone of not only the liberal arts but Sewanee in particular is the existence of a range of philosophical discourse. Sewanee’s own university purpose assures a dedication “to the pursuit of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom in close community and in full freedom of inquiry.” Here at Sewanee, we are not relegated to having our expression diluted by an oppressive university. Rather, the university encourages us to express ourselves and to preserve the civility that allows our community to thrive.