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Columbia Student Urges ‘Free-Speech Renewal’ in 2015

By December 31, 2014

Columbia University junior Bryan Schonfeld has seen firsthand the unhealthy climate for speech on college campuses, and he describes some bewildering examples of students’ and administrators’ aversion to free expression in an article for the New York Daily News this week.

Torch readers may recall that Columbia Law School was among the institutions that agreed to delay final exams for students who claimed to be either too traumatized by or too busy protesting grand juries’ decisions not to indict in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases. The administrative response at Columbia didn’t end there, though. According to Schonfeld, university administrators “concerned about heightened tensions” on campus tried to shut down an annual event called “Orgo Night,” in which the marching band “pokes fun at virtually every group on campus.” In a victory for free expression and comedy, the band played on. But do controversial outcomes in court really warrant canceling a roast of campus organizations? The reasoning behind the university’s reaction is difficult to accept.

Schonfeld covers a range of worrying phenomena, from the labeling of date requests as “microaggressions” at Barnard College to the broader calls for censorship in the name of emotional safety. He writes:

At universities, real discourse and education cannot be achieved if “safety” and “comfort” are the requirements that even professors must obey. Literary icon John Milton said it best in his speech Areopagitica, at a time when free speech was the exception, and not the norm: “Let her (Truth) and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”

[…]

To save the modern university, academics must take a more consistent and more vocal stand for free speech. Let us, the students, focus on our feelings. From our professors, we must hear that education requires diving head-first into the world of ideas and emerging as stronger and smarter individuals.

FIRE agrees. In closing, Schonfeld says, “As students and patriots, our New Year’s resolution should be to make 2015 a year of free-speech renewal.” We’ll toast to that.

Read the rest of Schonfeld’s article in the New York Daily News.

Schools: Columbia University Barnard College