Given the theme of this month’s issue – Education – I thought it would be a good idea to look at exactly what the term means. And the definition is not too surprising. It’s “the act of receiving or giving instruction.” When you think about it, that is the essence of learning, isn’t it? Whether it’s calculus class or guitar lessons (having experienced both, I can state unequivocally that the latter is more fun than the former) education consists of some form of instruction – either giving it or getting it.

But the debate over free speech on college campuses may affect this giving/getting scenario. And recent events at Columbia University illustrate the point. According to an article at campusreform.org, Columbia is investigating 15 students for allegedly disrupting a talk by Tommy Robinson. Robinson is a leader of the English Defence League. The EDL is a far-right organization based in the United Kingdom that is opposed to the spread of Islam and Sharia.

When Robinson tried to speak at Columbia earlier this year, a group of students effectively shouted him down. And those students could now be facing expulsion.

For their defense, the students claim they were exercising their own free speech rights in shouting Robinson down. A petition circulated on their behalf praises them for having the “courage to challenge the widespread acceptance of white supremacy.” In their view, the First Amendment allows speech to literally drown out other speech. Presumably, our Founding Fathers adopted the First Amendment to reward the loudest voices.

Except they didn’t. Our country’s concept of free speech is about the content of the speech, not its volume. And while the First Amendment doesn’t apply to a private university like Columbia, it would prohibit a public institution from prohibiting Robinson from speaking based on the ugly content of his words. But that is different from prohibiting hecklers from drowning him out. In the latter case, Columbia isn’t concerned with the content of what the hecklers have to say – it is the sheer decibel level that prevents the audience from hearing the speaker. And because the issue isn’t WHAT the hecklers are saying, the regulation is content neutral.

Take the definition of “education” I mentioned earlier and substitute “ideas” for “instruction” and you get to the heart of free speech – it is the “act of receiving or giving ideas.” Heckling an offensive speaker into submission interferes with the giving and receiving process. The way to challenge Robinson is to “educate” – provide listeners with the information that demonstrates why he’s wrong. THAT is real courage and real free speech. Shouting him down is just noise.