Protecting free speech on campus part of a university’s mission

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A recent Vox article doubts there is a problem with free speech on campus because there are “well over 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States” (4,360 according to the U.S. Department of Education), and there have been “only a handful of disinvitations.” With a “relatively few incidents of speech being squelched on college campuses” compared to the number of schools, “the raw numbers here should already raise questions about the so-called political correctness epidemic.”

With this logic, not enough people have been silenced yet and we should not be motivated to protect a federal law or the personal safety involved until more damage is done. The author doesn’t give a number, but the severity of the violence and campus mobs that set fires at Berkeley, shut down Evergreen State College, or shouted down an ACLU executive at William & Mary, to name a few incidents in the past two years, are not enough.

The number of episodes aside, claims of a free speech “epidemic” are just about politics anyway, says Vox: “Some campus free speech critics, I suspect, aren’t operating in good faith. For them, the entire debate is a way to attack universities as hopelessly and dangerously liberal — to undermine higher education for nakedly partisan reasons.”

Statements from three college presidents indicate that they feel protecting free speech is part of their school’s mission—regardless of a campus’s political climate. In her essay, Ana Mari Cauce, president of the University of Washington, says, “Universities are essential and suitable forums for discussion and debate of controversial topics. Debate helps students develop the skills that strengthen democracy… We should always err in favor of more – not less – speech on campus.”

Clayton Rose, president of Bowdoin College, says, “Our students need to develop the skills and sensibility for thoughtful and respectful discourse on these divisive topics — something that has all but disappeared in our cable news society.”

Finally, Connie Ledoux Book, president of Elon University, says, “Protecting a student’s right to speak and another student’s right to disagree is an imperative… Let’s make sure we have also taught them how to disagree: if Americans are only capable of shouting at each other, those of us in higher education will shoulder a part of the blame.”

Such comments from school presidents are reassuring, especially after a survey of college presidents earlier this year found that 15 percent of respondents feel it is “sometimes acceptable” for students to shout down a speaker. Perhaps the idea that college should be where students challenge assumptions and explore new ideas is not completely lost. If we wait to defend free speech until the challenges to free expression become commonplace, we will all share the blame.

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