By Will Creeley and Geoffrey R. Stone at The Washington Post
Censorship in the academic community is commonplace. Students and faculty are increasingly being investigated and punished for controversial, dissenting or simply discomforting speech. It is time for colleges and universities to take a deep breath, remember who they are and reaffirm their fundamental commitment to freedom of expression.
The past academic year offers a depressing number of examples of institutions of higher education failing to live up to their core mission. At Northwestern University, for example, Professor Laura Kipnis endured a months-long Title IX investigation for publishing an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education in which she discussed a high-profile sexual assault case. Just a few months later, her fellow professor, Alice Dreger, courageously resigned in protest over Northwestern’s censorship of a faculty-edited medical journal.
In a similar vein, Louisiana State University fired Professor Teresa Buchanan after nearly two decades of service for her occasional use of profanity, which the university suddenly deemed “sexual harassment,” and Chicago State University enacted a new cyberbullying policy to silence a blog that was critical of university leadership.
At Iowa State University, administrators censored T-shirts created by the university’s student chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. The Regents of the University of California are considering adopting a “Statement of Principles Against Intolerance” that would ban “derogatory language reflecting stereotypes or prejudice.” Other institutions are considering banning so-called “microaggressions” or requiring “trigger warnings” to protect students from having to confront potentially upsetting ideas and subjects. Still others have withdrawn invitations to speakers who have taken positions that some members of the community find unpleasant, offensive or wrong-headed — a practice President Obama criticized this month, saying that leaving students “coddled and protected from different points of view” is “not the way we learn.”
Restrictions on free expression on college campuses are incompatible with the fundamental values of higher education. At public institutions, they violate the First Amendment; at most private institutions, they break faith with stated commitments to academic freedom. And these restrictions are widespread: The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s most recent survey of college and university policies found that more than 55 percent of institutions maintain illiberal speech codes that prohibit what should be protected speech. For students and faculty, the message is clear: Speaking your mind means putting your education or your career at risk.
Enough is enough. Our colleges and universities should redeem the promise of the new academic year by reaffirming their commitments to freedom of expression.
Last year, the University of Chicago convened a Committee on Freedom of Expression to do exactly that. The committee issued a statement identifying the principles that must guide institutions committed to attaining knowledge through free and open discourse. Guaranteeing members of the academic community “the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn,” the statement guarantees students and faculty the right “to discuss any problem that presents itself.”
How should students and scholars respond when challenged by speech with which they disagree, or that they even loathe? The Chicago statement sets forth the answer: “by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose.” Anticipating the push and pull of passionate debate, the statement sets forth important ground rules: “Debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.”
Perhaps most important, the Chicago statement 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.” Laura Kipnis, Alice Dreger and Teresa Buchanan would have benefited from this frank and necessary recognition.
Encouragingly, Princeton University, American University and Purdue University have already adopted the core of the Chicago statement as their own. If colleges and universities nationwide were to follow their example — either by adopting the Chicago statement or forging one of their own — academic censorship would face a powerful new challenge.
Backed by a strong commitment to freedom of expression and academic freedom, faculty could challenge one another, their students and the public to consider new possibilities, without fear of reprisal. Students would no longer face punishment for exercising their right to speak out freely about the issues most important to them. Instead of learning that voicing one’s opinions invites silencing, students would be taught that spirited debate is a vital necessity for the advancement of knowledge. And they would be taught that the proper response to ideas they oppose is not censorship, but argument on the merits. That, after all, is what a university is for.
Free speech and academic freedom will not protect themselves. With public reaffirmation of the necessity of free speech on campus, the current wave of censorship that threatens the continuing excellence of U.S. higher education can be repudiated, as it should be, as a transitory moment of weakness that disrespects what our institutions of higher learning must represent.