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At Notre Dame commencement, Vice President Pence addresses freedom of expression while students exercise it

By May 22, 2017

On Sunday, Vice President Mike Pence delivered the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame. While the vice president spoke about college students’ freedom of expression, some graduating students exercised that right, quietly walking out as the speech began.

Pence’s address included an extended discussion of the state of freedom of expression on America’s college campuses:

 

You know, if the emanations of free speech were charted on a map like infrared heat signatures, one would hope that universities would be the hottest places. Red and purple with dispute, not dark blue and white frozen into camped orthodoxy and intellectual stasis.

If such a map were to exist, Notre Dame would burn bright with the glow of vibrant discussion. This university is a vanguard of freedom of expression and the free exchange of ideas at a time, sadly, when free speech and civility are waning on campuses across America.

Notre Dame is a campus where deliberation is welcomed, where opposing views are debated, and where every speaker, no matter how unpopular or unfashionable, is afforded the right to air their views in the open for all to hear.

But Notre Dame is an exception, an island in a sea of conformity, so far spared from the noxious wave that seems to be rushing over much of academia. While this institution has maintained an atmosphere of civility and open debate, far too many campuses across America have become characterized by speech codes, safe zones, tone-policing, administration-sanctioned political correctness, all of which amounts to nothing less than suppression of the freedom of speech.

These all-too-common practices are destructive of learning and the pursuit of knowledge, and they are wholly outside the American tradition. As you, our youth, are the future, and universities the bellwether of thought and culture, I would submit that the increasing intolerance and suppression of the time-honored tradition of free expression on our campuses jeopardizes the liberties of every American. This should not, and must not be met with silence.

FIRE agrees with Pence’s sentiments — and there’s good news: we do have a map that allows people to view which schools have speech-restrictive policies. The bad news is that, as the vice president noted, many of those institutions continue to maintain speech codes and other threats to freedom of speech enshrined in official policy.

Although the vice president characterized Notre Dame as “an exception” to this rule, it is not. Notre Dame is a red-light institution, meaning it has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech. In this case, that policy — among many policies that could too easily be interpreted to restrict protected expression — is a policy prohibiting students from using the internet to view “offensive” material. While Notre Dame is a private institution and not bound by the First Amendment, it voluntarily commits itself to respecting students’ freedom of expression — a promise that the vice president praised.

And it’s a promise that students are testing. A number of graduating students quietly walked out when Vice President Pence began speaking, engaging in a peaceful protest without substantially disrupting a speaker or preventing a willing audience from listening. Although some have criticized whether the students’ response was appropriate, this was quite clearly a “more speech” response to a speaker they found objectionable. The protest didn’t derive its power from reducing speech, but from adding a visual element to it. Whether others agree with that message or its tone is a separate question from whether the protest was expression that could — and should — be safe from official reprisal by authorities or administrators. It is.

And, as The Wall Street Journal notes, the vice president apparently agrees:

When asked about Mr. Pence’s thoughts on the walkout, Mr. Lotter referred to the vice president’s speech.

“He was celebrating the need for freedom of expression and speech, and highlighting Notre Dame’s commitment to that in his speech,” he said.

All in all, a healthy view on freedom of speech by the vice president, and a healthy exercise of it by the students opposed to him.

Schools: University of Notre Dame