University of Oklahoma President David Boren's promise to take"swift action" against potentially protected speech makes our "bad" list. (Ken Wolter/Shutterstock.com)
For the past few months, we’ve been covering the statements campus leaders make about free speech at their colleges or universities. In the weeks following this month’s presidential election, campus leaders have addressed their students’ reactions to the results in various ways—some “good,” and others “bad” for freedom of expression.
Central Washington University (CWU)
CWU President James Gaudino made a post-election statement November 9 encouraging his students to continue to “debate and disagree”:
President Obama today encouraged us all to move forward with faith in our fellow citizens and urged us all to hold on to our dreams. He pointed out that, “the path this country has taken has never been a straight line. We zig and zag.” Depending upon your political persuasion, we may be zigging or zagging. This may be the best day of the year, or the worst.
I ask you to remember that Central Washington University is above all a place of learning. We study, debate, and disagree—and learn from all of those things. Let’s look ahead. Let’s look together.
Gaudino is right to point out and promote the notion of the university as a marketplace of ideas where participants may freely “study, debate, and disagree—and learn from all of those things.”
Portland State University (PSU)
In a message to PSU students on November 16, President Wim Wiewel rightly emphasized the line between constitutionally protected speech and forms of unprotected speech like harassment:
Protests and vehement political discourse are part of life at almost every college campus, and PSU is no exception. These are valid ways of expressing support or frustration, and they are protected under the broad freedom of speech principles that we uphold at PSU. When that speech crosses the line into harassment, however, it becomes unacceptable. As you make your voice heard about the election results, or any other issue, I urge you to do so in a respectful manner.
Although he goes on to urge students to speak out in a “respectful manner” (despite the fact that speech that is simply deemed “disrespectful” would be protected by the First Amendment), he does not require students to be respectful, and he does not threaten punishment for failing to do so.
Ohio State University (OSU)
In another example of a university leader correctly identifying the line between protected speech and speech that is excepted from the protections of the First Amendment, OSU President Michael Drake addressed students via email the weekend following the election.
“We protect First Amendment rights actively,” Drake said, “but we do not under any circumstances tolerate intimidation or threats to students, faculty, staff or visitors to our campus.”
As intimidation and threats, as legally defined, are not protected by the First Amendment, Drake strikes a balance here between respecting his students’ free speech rights and reminding students that not all speech will be protected in all circumstances.
Central Michigan University (CMU)
CMU President George Ross called working with those who hold differing views “part of the American experience” in an email to the campus community on November 13. He explained:
“I believe in freedom of speech and am proud that CMU students, faculty and staff are engaging in conversations and peaceful demonstrations like the one planned tomorrow.”
This statement is another example of a university president embracing the importance of free speech as a pivotal tool for the advancement and debate of ideas throughout America’s history, particularly on America’s college and university campuses.
University of Oklahoma
University of Oklahoma (UO) President David Boren made the following statement on November 11 after investigations into racist posts directed at University of Pennsylvania students made after the election were found to have originated in the state of Oklahoma:
The University of Oklahoma has made it clear that we will not tolerate racism or hate speech that constitutes a threat to our campus or others. We have a record of taking swift action once all of the facts are known.
While a “true threat” would certainly be punishable as speech not protected by the First Amendment, Boren in his statement here includes far more speech than threats as legally defined when he states that the school will not tolerate “racism” or “hate speech.” Whether or not the speech at issue in the University of Pennsylvania case represents a true threat, Boren makes a general statement to his students here affirming that OU prohibits a broad swath of constitutionally protected speech.
Indiana University (IU)
In a post-election statement from President Michael McRobbie on November 14, McRobbie used mandatory language to require tolerance and respect during debate, in contrast to the aspirational language PSU President Wiewel used in his statement to students:
The 2016 presidential election is over, and our country has made a decision. The contentious political climate of the last several months has underscored deep divisions within our country. Debate and discussion about the issues over which the election was contested will and should continue, but it must be carried out in a spirit of tolerance and respect for the opinions of others, and one that recognizes everyone’s fundamental right to freedom of speech.
McRobbie was right to encourage debate and discussion during this time, and to recognize everyone’s fundamental right to freedom of speech. However, a stronger statement would have made the “spirit of tolerance and respect for the opinions of others” a suggestion for his students, rather than a demand.
As the school year continues, we’ll continue to bring you updates on the statements leaders of colleges and universities make about free speech.