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Northwestern student government endorses free speech, viewpoint diversity

Northwestern University’s student government passed a bold and sweeping resolution this month asking the school to recommit to its existing speech-protective policies, resist censorship attempts from both internal and legislative sources, and prioritize intellectual and viewpoint diversity as part of ongoing inclusiveness efforts.

Senior and Associated Student Government Senator Lauren Thomas spent four months drafting the resolution, which the senate passed March 7 after debating its contents and making several amendments. (You can read the full text below.)

“I wrote this resolution because of something that was really important to me,” Thomas said, noting that ASG resolutions represent a formal call upon Northwestern’s administration to act.

“Northwestern had been named to FIRE’s 2016 Worst Schools for Free Speech,” she said, “because we had two incidents within a year’s span of faculty censorship.” Those much-covered academic freedom controversies involving professors Alice Dreger and Laura Kipnis were recently the subject of a faculty committee report calling on Northwestern to apologize to Dreger specifically and amend the policies involved in both incidents.

While Thomas said she thought inclusion on FIRE’s 2016 “Worst” list was “a little harsh,” she did have similar concerns of her own on various fronts.

Interested in campus rights issues since her freshman year, Thomas had grown increasingly aware of censorship at other colleges and universities and recognized Northwestern’s policies left room for abuse in the wrong hands.

“In general, I think [Northwestern’s] been pretty welcoming while I’ve been here,” she said of the current campus climate. “But we also have a very civil student body. I don’t think we’ve tested the waters as much.”

And that, Thomas feared, could easily and unpredictably change.

“I was really concerned that someone would invite a controversial speaker and Northwestern students would shout them down,” she said. “Even though in the past we’ve had controversial speakers come who’ve gotten bad receptions at other schools and here it’s been completely fine. Rick Santorum came and people just came and asked him questions. Newt Gingrich came. Ben Shapiro, who was forbidden to speak at DePaul, came to Northwestern and nothing happened.” But Thomas said this “was a preemptive bill” to minimize the possibility of future shoutdowns and disinvitations, and ensure the university would act to protect speakers in the event such disruptions occurred.

The resolution also calls upon Northwestern to reject the kinds of censorship attempts that targeted Kipnis and Dreger, and asks the university to fight back against the kinds of legislative threats to defund controversial university programs that have recently proliferated at other major universities. Those calls have elicited alarm bells from FIRE and others about the serious danger they pose to academic freedom.

Finally, the resolution urges Northwestern to take a firmer stance on viewpoint diversity — not just protecting it, but welcoming it. That, Thomas said, would send a message to the subset of Northwestern students who are “very interested in protecting students from speech they don’t want to hear.”

“It’s really shortsighted to try to protect students from speech,” said Thomas, “and it’s really damaging to the school and to our nation in general.”

Thomas, who is now retired from senate duties because she’s graduating, said she hopes her bill will protect future generations of Northwestern students from the threat of being discriminated against for holding unpopular views or minority political opinions.

“Protecting free speech everywhere is important, not just at universities. But I think public universities are at least one of the biggest violators. Even though I go to a private university and we have very expansive student [speech] rights clearly listed in the handbook, I’d like to see Northwestern expand that and say viewpoint diversity is important to them.”

That aspect of the resolution was recently praised by Heterodox Academy, which works to promote ideological diversity on campuses.

Before her time on campus comes to a close, Thomas hopes to find a successor to move her work forward in the coming years. As wide-ranging as this resolution is, she said, it “wasn’t a perfect bill. There was a compromise between what I would have liked and what would pass through senate.”

“I would’ve liked to concentrate more on Northwestern’s speech code[s],” she said, specifically citing the school’s “vague” policy on harassment. It’s one of nine such codes that currently earn Northwestern a low, “yellow light” ranking from FIRE because they could too easily be abused or applied arbitrarily to target speech Northwestern purports to protect.

FIRE commends Northwestern’s student government for taking a principled stand on these important issues and we hope another student senator will step forward to take Thomas’ baton. Likewise, we hope Northwestern administrators will take notice and heed their students’ call for action.

For more information on how you can get involved with this important work on your own campus, check out FIRE’s many resources over on our FIRE Student Network page.

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