COLUMN: “National Freedom of Speech Week” reminds us of core value

October 22, 2009

Freedom of speech is one of the most essential freedoms in the United States, and its value and importance on college campuses cannot be understated.

This week is "National Freedom of Speech Week," a perfect time to reflect on the importance of free speech and how it is being viewed and upheld here at OU.

Colleges and universities are among the most common organizations to regularly advertise allegiance to free speech on their campuses.

When first applying for college, many of us looked through different universities’ prospective student brochures. Almost all of them proclaim that one of the school’s core missions is to promote academic free inquiry, diversity, tolerance or public discourse.

The OU Student Code echoes this commitment to these freedoms, stating that "principles of academic freedom and freedom of expression require tolerance of the expression of ideas and opinions which may be offensive to some, and the university respects and upholds these principles."

In the illegal downloading e-mail sent to the OU community Tuesday, the university again expressed a commitment to preserving the free exchange of ideas on campus.

"Our goal is to maintain an environment of academic freedom," the e-mail stated. "The intent is not to block or monitor content, but instead to limit the illegal sharing of media files."

But while I understand the school’s motives in limiting peer-to-peer network use as an attempt to curb illegal downloading, I call into question the idea that the school can deny outright the use of a computer program simply because it may be used for illegal downloading.

LimeWire, KaZaA and Gnutella, the three peer-to-peer programs specifically cited in the e-mail, can be used to transfer perfectly legal files, applications and documents.

If a student receives a copyright violation notice, I understand taking away his or her ability to use the program that contributed to the violation. But the university’s ability to enact a preemptive ban on something that can be used for a completely legal exchange of information should be further questioned and investigated.

Another issue concerning freedom of expression and Internet usage by the OU community was raised during the 2008 campaign season.

In September of last year, Nick Hathaway, vice president for executive and administrative affairs, sent a university-wide e-mail stating that the OU e-mail system "may not be used to endorse or oppose a candidate, including the forwarding of political humor/commentary."

This restriction caught the eye of several OU students as well as a national free speech advocacy group, who contacted OU President David L. Boren and expressed concern over the limitations of free speech.

Boren issued a clarification of the school’s policy Oct. 27, and expressed appreciation to those who questioned the limitations on free speech.

"I applaud those who asked the questions about this policy which was worded to make it appear overly restrictive," Boren said in the clarification e-mail. "I am encouraged by the vigilance of members of the OU family in defense of free expression."

Perhaps the most blatantly obvious attempt to suppress free speech on the OU campus came last year when Oklahoma representative Todd Thomsen proposed two resolutions condemning the March 6 lecture by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, and asking the university to disinvite him.

Thomsen attacked Dawkins’ stand on evolution, claiming that his views "are not shared and are not representative of the thinking of a majority of the citizens of Oklahoma."

The idea that Dawkins shouldn’t be allowed to speak because his views do not fit into the normal line of thinking with the rest of Oklahoma is completely contradictory to the core reason why free speech is important.

The "marketplace of ideas" that is essential to a university’s academic strength cannot exist when students, faculty or invited guests are unable to freely express their views.

As students in the age of the Internet, we have more ways to express our thoughts than any generation before us. I urge the OU community to think critically and skeptically about what restrictions are being placed on the exchange of ideas, to respect one another’s right to hold and express his or her own opinion, and to participate in debate and dialog with one another so that OU can truly be a university of free expression.

For more information about "National Freedom of Speech Week," visit http://www.nfsw.org.

Schools: University of Oklahoma