Restoring Free Speech On Campus

Students and faculty are increasingly being investigated and punished for controversial, dissenting or simply discomforting speech.

Backed by a strong commitment to freedom of expression and academic freedom, faculty could challenge one another, their students and the public to consider new possibilities, without fear of reprisal. Students would no longer face punishment for exercising their right to speak out freely about the issues most important to them. Instead of learning that voicing one’s opinions invites silencing, students would be taught that spirited debate is a vital necessity for the advancement of knowledge.

 

Geoffrey R. Stone, a professor at the University of Chicago, chaired the University of Chicago’s Committee on Freedom of Expression. Will Creeley is vice president for legal and public advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Censorship in the academic community is commonplace. Students and faculty are increasingly being investigated and punished for controversial, dissenting or simply discomforting speech. It is time for colleges and universities to take a deep breath, remember who they are and reaffirm their fundamental commitment to freedom of expression.

The past academic year offers a depressing number of examples of institutions of higher education failing to live up to their core mission. At Northwestern University, for example, Professor Laura Kipnis endured a months-long Title IX investigation for publishing an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education in which she discussed a high-profile sexual assault case. Just a few months later, her fellow professor, Alice Dreger, courageouslyresigned in protest over Northwestern’s censorship of a faculty-edited medical journal.

In a similar vein, Louisiana State University fired Professor Teresa Buchanan after nearly two decades of service for her occasional use of profanity, which the university suddenly deemed “sexual harassment,” and Chicago State University enacted a new cyberbullying policy to silence a blog that was critical of university leadership.

At Iowa State University, administrators censored T-shirts created by the university’s student chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. The Regents of the University of California are considering adopting a “Statement of Principles Against Intolerance” that would ban “derogatory language reflecting stereotypes or prejudice.” Other institutions are considering banning so-called “microaggressions” or requiring “trigger warnings” to protect students from having to confront potentially upsetting ideas and subjects. Still others have withdrawn invitations to speakers who have taken positions that some members of the community find unpleasant, offensive or wrong-headed — a practice President Obama criticized this month, saying that leaving students “coddled and protected from different points of view” is “not the way we learn.”

Restrictions on free expression on college campuses are incompatible with the fundamental values of higher education. At public institutions, they violate the First Amendment; at most private institutions, they break faith with stated commitments to academic freedom.

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