October 15, 2014

Free Speech on Campus

US Secretary of State, Ms. Condoleezz...
US Secretary of State, Ms. Condoleezza Rice, speaking on climate change in Washington DC. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
My views on the importance of free expression and what threatens it have evolved over time. I do not have to go back more than a couple years to find posts I wrote on this topic with which I now disagree. This is one of the strengths of freethought - we can (and do) change our minds as a result of new experiences, knowledge, and the like. Not being attached to any particular dogma makes this much easier to do.

I've recognized that some of the more serious threats today come not from the political right but from the political left. I've discovered that some atheists are not just willing but eager to silence those who disagree with them on certain socio-political issues or do not share their priorities by resorting to public shaming, shunning, and intimidation (e.g., campaigns to get people fired for saying things they don't like). And I've seen massive changes taking place at institutions of higher learning that have been toxic to free expression (e.g., the idea that protecting students from hurt feelings is a vital part of the university mission).

In an editorial addressing the recent trend of public figures turning down requests to deliver commencement addresses at universities over concerns that students would protest their appearance, the Los Angeles Times' Editorial Board acknowledged that students have the right to protest the selection of graduation speakers, adding:
Still, the cascade of canceled speeches is worrying for several reasons. First, there is the uncompromising nature of the opposition: the demand that a speaker agree 100% with the protesters. This insistence on doctrinal purity is antithetical to the notion that a university ought to be an environment in which students, far from being protected from opposing views, are challenged to engage with them.
It is no surprise that efforts to suppress speech at colleges and universities come mostly from the political left. It is widely acknowledged that faculty and students tend to be somewhat more liberal than the general population. Thus, practically anything one finds happening on campus is going to come mostly from those who lean left. But that in no way excuses such efforts.
The notion that free speech and tolerance of opposing views are values that can be sacrificed in the cause of freedom and equality has a long pedigree. But it has no place on a college campus, on graduation day or at any other time.
Yes, I cannot accept this sort of sacrifice either. I expect to hear things with which I will strongly disagree and may even find repugnant in the university setting. I am rarely disappointed in this regard. I have had to sit through countless commencement speeches given by some truly despicable people, but I somehow managed to survive. Believe it or not, a few of them even turned out to be thought-provoking even though I disagreed with what was said.

I do not believe that our colleges and universities can function optimally without being bastions of free expression. We do not have to like every idea we encounter. We should not like every idea we encounter. Growth often requires us to engage with ideas we find challenging, upsetting, and even threatening to the status quo. I find it impossible to think that we can grow and develop without repeatedly encountering ideas we do not like. We have no right to deprive college students of this experience out of some misguided notion that one's feelings must never be hurt.

Avoiding controversial subjects and "trigger warnings" are detrimental to the process of education. It is great that colleges and universities are paying more attention to the psychologically vulnerable. This is long overdue; however, expanding campus-based mental health services to make sure that the students who need help can receive it easily and cheaply strikes me as far more consistent with the mission of higher education than attempting to shield all students from potentially upsetting material. Instead of allowing an overly sensitive few dictate the experience of all students, we would be better served to provide them with the help they require to cope with the emotional adversity inherent in the college experience.



I should note that I disagree with some parts of the Times editorial. Specifically, I believe that Condoleezza Rice most likely did lie to the American people, may indeed be a war criminal, and that it is fair to characterize the International Monetary Fund as "an agent of imperialism." But none of this translates into my wanting to restrict anybody's speech, including hers.

I welcome student protests on campus. I am disappointed that there aren't more of them. But I think they can and should be an opportunity to engage in free expression without attempting to limit anyone else's free expression. The protestors have a right to be heard, but so do those they are protesting. I find it disappointing when colleges and universities cave in to this sort of pressure and attempt to shield students from ideas that make them uncomfortable.

To learn more about how free speech and other individual rights are faring on campuses in the U.S. and what those of us who wish to preserve these rights can do to help, check out the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). I don't always agree with their positions, and you won't either. But that doesn't mean that we don't all benefit from having them in the mix and working to defend free speech on campus.
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