Free Speech on Campus at Risk

November 3, 2015

By Staff at The Virginia Gazette 

Open debate or ideological conformity?

This question is among the free speech issues facing institutions of higher learning nationwide, including William & Mary. To address this topic, the Society for the College, an independent non-profit alumni organization and the SFTC Student Association has engaged speaker Catherine Sevcenko, noted authority on legal issues affecting student rights, to discuss how W&M students can defend the first amendment and academic freedom on campus.

Sevcenko, associate director of litigation at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, will also present some wide legal challenges affecting free speech and academic freedom in higher education. FIRE is a non-profit group that defends civil liberties on college campuses. In her role at FIRE, Sevcenko has a first-hand view of how colleges and universities are increasingly prioritizing students’ emotional comfort rather than their learning.

On college campuses today, there are numerous examples of assaults on free speech where robust debate once existed.

Just recently at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, the student government voted to cut funding for the 150-year-old campus newspaper after it published a conservative op/ed. This action was clearly an effort to deny legitimacy of opposing arguments from public discourse. Intolerance of ideas, whether liberal or conservative, is antithetical to individual rights especially at colleges and universities where open discussions and vigorous debate should be encouraged.

At William & Mary, the subject of “trigger warnings” has recently been presented to the Board of Visitors and discussed on campus. Trigger warnings protect against offensive material. They alert students to information that might trigger adverse emotional effects. Trigger warnings give authority to determine what is and what is not worthy of expression. It is a strike against free speech.

Yale University commissioned McLaughlin & Associates to study attitudes toward free speech on campus. Approximately 800 students across the country participated. 63% favored trigger warnings, 51% favored speech codes to regulate student and faculty speech. Yet nearly 1/3 of those students could not identify the first amendment as part of the constitution dealing with free speech.

The solution to free speech should be more free speech, not less.

To this end and on a positive note, the Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago adopted the “Chicago Principles” that guarantee “to all members of the university community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn.” It also makes clear that “it is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable or even deeply offensive.” The momentum behind the “Chicago Principles” is growing. Princeton and Purdue Universities adopted the core values. Johns Hopkins announced their new academic freedom policy endorsing the principles as well as Winston Salem State University in North Carolina. American University adopted a similar state of principles. College education should give students a chance to discern and make judgments about truth, to engage ideas and decide for themselves. It is not a question of what to think, but how to think which requires listening to both sides, weighing the arguments without prejudgment and determining what points are fair. This is the high road of open debate that William & Mary would do well to adopt.

Susan B. Eley, has undergraduate and graduate degrees from the College of William & Mary. She lives in Mathews.

The Society for the College and the SFTC Student Association is offering a program on free speech issues of interest to students and the public alike by Catherine Sevcenko at Ewell Hall, Wednesday, Nov. 11th at 7:30pm. The program is free and open to the public.

Schools: Winston-Salem State University Johns Hopkins University University of Chicago Wesleyan University American University Princeton University Purdue University Yale University