The Death Of Campus Free Speech — And How To Revive It

  • Date: 02/07/16
  • Charles Lipson, Real Clear Politics

The assault on free discussion is now commonplace on campus. What can be done?

Five Steps to Protect Campus Speech

First, university presidents and top administrators must show some intellectual courage. Their boards of trustees should demand to know if free speech is protected on their campuses, in principle and in practice. Then, they should hold the school administrators accountable for results.

Second, universities should tell students, beginning with their acceptance letters, that “our school believes in free speech, open debate, and diverse opinions. You will hear different views on controversial topics. You are urged to read, write, and develop your own views, but you may not suppress others.” Stress that core value during orientation week. Urge students who seek shelter from intellectual challenges to go somewhere else.

Third, assign one ranking administrator primary responsibility for ensuring free and open debate on campus. This administrator should have no other responsibilities for student affairs since, experience shows, those other student responsibilities undermine the focus on free speech. He or she should make regular reports to the university president, faculty, and board, just as others do about gender discrimination, physical safety, and other issues.

Fourth, demand that student affairs offices stop suppressing basic academic freedoms and start supporting them. Begin by restoring the rightful meaning of “student safety.” It shouldn’t be distorted to shield students from uncomfortable ideas. In the 1950s, that would have prevented students at Ole Miss from urging racial integration, or even hearing about it in class. Somebody would have been offended.

Finally, let students know that they have every right to protest peacefully. They have every right to hold their own events, opposing what others’ advocate. But they have no right to disrupt others, and they will be punished if they do. Stop coddling rabble-rousers who come to campus specifically to disrupt academic events, as they often do. Universities routinely ignore these problems, despite their corrosive effects.

Unless universities address these issues, firmly and promptly, they will fail in their basic mission of promoting the exchange of ideas, real learning, and innovative research. That mission requires vigorous, unfettered debates and diverse viewpoints. Right now, it is being smothered in an avalanche of delicate snowflakes.

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