In October, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression hosted a symposium at the University of Virginia School of Law entitled “Free Speech on Campus.” As a former intern and fellow at the TJ Center and a UVA Law alum, I was honored to participate in the symposium’s last panel, “Free Speech vs. Hostile Environment.” But I also was grateful for the opportunity to hear from campus administrators, professors, and free speech advocates throughout the two-day event.
Just before the new year, symposium panelist, Slate senior editor, and TJ Center board member Dahlia Lithwick featured highlights from the symposium in a segment for her Amicus podcast, which she hosts for Slate. Yesterday, the transcript of this segment was posted for Slate+ members. In the podcast, Lithwick first reviews the focus of the symposium:
It was motivated by the drip-drip of controversies over the past few years about a whole range of speech restrictions on campuses, things like trigger warnings, and speech codes, and the sanctioning of invited speakers and faculty members and student newspapers in response to unwelcome ideas that they had articulated.
The Jefferson Center symposium tried to better understand the legal issues raised by these controversies and what colleges and universities can do going forward to stay on solid Constitutional ground.
Lithwick goes on to share insightful excerpts from several symposium panelists. Among the highlights, Lithwick aptly summarizes a few strong arguments in favor of broad free speech rights for college students:
[H]ere I would just quote David Baugh, the African-American lawyer, who initially represented Barry Black in the cross-burning case at the Supreme Court. When asked about the campus speech problem, he said, “Look, part of being an American is the obligation to listen to language that makes you uncomfortable.” And graded into that response, I would say I did a panel a few months ago and listened to Ted Shaw from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, who is as conflicted as I am about these issues. His point was that as soon as you start restricting speech ostensibly to protect disadvantaged groups, you know who always gets it in the end? The disadvantaged groups. That it is invariably, in his view, the African American who is hurt more by speech codes and attempts to protect minorities than anyone else. That’s the slippery slope that he fears.
So, the arguments on this side, of course, are the self-evident First Amendment arguments, that the cure for bad speech is more speech. The way to air bad ideas is to discuss them, not to suppress them. And that college exists to teach critical thinking and to shape minds. And if you protect people from any idea that they find offensive, you are not doing the foundational work that colleges are meant to be doing. And, I think, the coda to all of that is that coddled children who are protected from any bad words that they don’t want to hear cannot then go out into the world and function the way [George Washington University Law School Dean] Blake [Morant] is suggesting we need to function out in the world. That college is not the place to remove real meaningful discourse in the interest of pure civility.
We at FIRE agree with those arguments. For more opinions on this issue, click over to the podcast or the transcript. Readers with more free time can also check out the symposium in full on the TJ Center’s YouTube page.