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More Campus Leaders Address Free Speech; Some Do It Better Than Others

We’ve been keeping our eye on the recent uptick in campus leaders addressing free speech. In our latest roundup of public commitments to freedom of speech by college and university administrators, we’re focusing only on “The Good”—bringing you a few of our recent favorites. We’ve even included one statement that almost made our “Bad” list. Read on to find out why:

The Good

George Mason University (GMU)

In an email to GMU students on Monday, Vice President for University Life Rose Pascarell took a pro-speech speech stance on the topic of civility in the wake of several recent campus events involving “hostile behavior directed at guests to the campus, including physical confrontations.” “It is our expectation that members of our community engage respectfully in such dialogue,” Pascarell wrote, “even when what is heard may seem offensive or distasteful”:

Our campus community, like others, will continue to be challenged by activities that some may view as personally distasteful or offensive. However, unlike many communities, we have the opportunity here at Mason to set an example and lead. I ask that you please remain respectful of opposing viewpoints and not engage in acts of incivility. You most certainly can counter speech you are offended by with your own speech. You can counter activities that are disagreeable to you with your own activities. You can choose to engage with those who have opposing viewpoints or you can walk away. Although the University supports your right to express discontent in a lawful manner, it is also obligated to uphold the rights of those who visit our campus to engage in constitutionally protected activities. Therefore, your cooperation is appreciated as the University continues to serve as a venue for engaging dialogues and freedom of expression.

University of Chicago

On Tuesday, an article in The Washington Post quoted UChicago President Robert J. Zimmer as saying that free expression is not only “absolutely intrinsic to delivering quality education,” but that it is also a “learned skill” that educators must teach:

Most people really are very comfortable with their own free expression and not with everybody else’s. That’s just the way it is. And helping students who come in — they’re 18 years old — it requires work to help people learn how to be in this type of environment and have a productive experience out of it. And I think that’s part of a university’s responsibility, to help people do that.

University of Minnesota (UMN)

Last week, UMN’s student newspaper, The Minnesota Daily, ran the second installment of its “Kickin’ it With Kaler” series, in which the newspaper discusses a variety of topics with UMN President Eric Kaler. Turns out that Kaler is, indeed, “kickin’ it” with free speech, telling the Daily of recent “Campus Climate” discussions that elicited protests:

The solution to speech that some find harmful is more speech on the other side of that issue. The campus conversation was a step forward. I listened to people who had feelings of hurt that translated in some cases, I think, into anger. We try to continue that dialogue and have people listen in respectful ways to points of view and try to find common ground.

Yale University

Finally, we can’t leave out Yale President Peter Salovey’s October 17 editorial in The Wall Street Journal, “Yale Believes In Free Speech—and So Do I.” In it, Salovey criticized the notion that inclusivity and commitment to free speech were mutually exclusive. The language makes our “Good” list, as it is certainly pro-speech on its face:

At Yale, we adhere to exceptionally strong principles of free expression. These were set forth originally in the Woodward Report of 1974, which was Yale’s signal contribution to earlier debates over free expression, and which has served as a model at many other universities. Yale does not censor invited speakers, nor does the administration discipline faculty members or students for the expression of ideas, no matter how unpopular. The answer to speech one finds offensive is more speech.

But Salovey also admonishes that “[t]hose who worry that free speech is imperiled at Yale should take note of the facts.” That is undoubtedly an allusion to criticism from FIRE, and others, over the handling of last year’s Halloween costume controversy. And Salovey points out that no students or faculty were ever formally disciplined for their opinions. In a just-published piece for Newsweek, however, renowned legal scholar and NYU Law School professor Richard Epstein took Salovey up on his offer to revisit those “facts,” questioning how Salovey can claim a true commitment to free speech after “systematic blunders” led to Yale’s painfully slow response to defend the speech rights of its faculty last fall:

Salovey takes great pride in noting “the Yale administration did not criticize, discipline, or dismiss a single member of its faculty, staff, or student body for expressing an opinion.”

That sentence may be technically true, but it does not explain why Salovey did not mention the unfortunate fate of Nicholas and Erika Christakis, both of whom resigned from Yale under massive pressure after student protesters demanded that Nicholas be removed from his position as master of Silliman College.

Why? Because Erika had written an email that took issue with a letter from Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee that warned students against various insensitive forms of behaviors, like wearing offensive Halloween costumes.

The letter noted, like Salovey’s op-ed, that Yale values “free expression as well as inclusivity.” But the massive level of abuse directed at Nicholas and Erika Christakis reveals how strongly Yale weighs one imperative over the other.

The errors here are not just unfortunate glitches but systematic blunders. One of the most critical matters in dealing with the right to free speech is the correlative duty that all individuals have to avoid actions that harm another person.

Aaron Sibarium, former opinion editor at the Yale Daily News, also penned a letter to the editor for the WSJ, responding to Salovey’s piece. It, too, was critical of the atmosphere at Yale:

What Mr. Salovey doesn’t realize is how difficult it was to find such voices. Many students privately expressed their dismay at the protests, yet very few of these students were willing to express these views in the pages of the YDN when I reached out to them. They told me they were worried about being ostracized by their peers, and they were perplexed that the administration had refused to take any disciplinary action against the protesters who cursed out Nicholas Christakis in the Silliman College courtyard. In other words, many students were worried that there wasn’t a respectful climate of reasoned debate on campus, not that Yale was making any kind of institutional effort to suppress free speech. Mr. Salovey’s argument, well-intentioned though it may be, ignores this crucial distinction.

While FIRE would not condone “disciplinary action” against protected speech, as some Yale students apparently suggested, Sibarium’s concerns about the viewpoint-neutral climate for campus debate is well-taken.

So, while Salovey’s statement makes our “Good” list for its defense of free speech, FIRE maintains its concerns for the state of free speech at the Ivy League institution.

FIRE always likes to give credit—as we’ve done here—for public statements committing to free expression on campus. What we like even more are policies and practices that put those statements into action. We hope all the schools on this list will continue efforts to make their campuses safe for free speech.

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