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Purdue’s Dean Supports Free Speech Without Ifs, Ands, or Buts

As dedicated Torch readers know, I’ve been known to engage in a rant or two about university presidents who wax poetic about the value of free speech and then go on to carve out all sorts of exceptions for unpopular speech—which is precisely what the First Amendment is designed to protect. (University of Iowa and Brandeis University, I’m looking at you.)

I therefore read the recent “letter to the community” from Purdue University’s Dean of Students, Katherine L. Sermersheim, with particular pleasure. Appearing in The Exponent as an op-ed piece, the letter comments on the campus appearance of a preacher whose message many students found offensive.

The letter is well worth quoting at length:

The overall message communicated by this individual was viewed as very offensive and inappropriate by members of our community who heard it or came into contact with him. While the beliefs reportedly expressed by this individual are clearly inconsistent with the values and ideals of Purdue University, embracing free speech – of all kinds – is the very essence of a free society and marketplace of ideas.

Purdue University, while in no way condoning the behavior of yesterday’s visitor or the content of his message, does celebrate the opportunity for learning and values-clarification that is accorded us when such expressive activity (however offensive) occurs in our midst.

Recognizing Purdue’s commitment to ensuring “free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation,” others are encouraged – and apparently did so boldly on Wednesday – to “openly and vigorously contest” the opinions of others that they oppose.

A society – and particularly a university – that welcomes and embraces diverse thought and expression is one that produces citizens best prepared for a global society with a skill-set rich in critical thinking, life-long learning and mutual respect.

Having a genuine free speech environment means that we almost certainly will encounter speech with which we strongly disagree. We can choose to openly and vigorously contest such speech with speech of our own – a right granted to us all by the Bill of Rights.

When alternative views and diverse expressions are shared on campus, along with the opportunity for others to debate, deliberate and oppose those expressions, our University community solidifies its special role as a marketplace of ideas and supporter of academic freedoms.

As demonstrated beautifully by our students on Wednesday, I encourage members of our community to continue to challenge thoughts and ideals to which you take exception and to do so courageously.

The letter is an eloquent exposition of some of the basic principles of First Amendment jurisprudence: The First Amendment exists to protect offensive speech, the best way to counter noxious ideas is not to censor but to refute them, and college campuses should be among the freest environments for such exchanges to take place. Of course, it is unsurprising that such a statement comes from a university that worked with FIRE earlier this year to earn a “green light” rating for free speech.

Dean Sermersheim’s letter is also remarkable for what it lacks: the word “but.” Time and time again, senior university officials extol the virtues of free speech, only to then qualify the statement to render it essentially meaningless. Public university officials can condemn offensive expression, but they cannot silence it. FIRE salutes Dean Sermersheim for recognizing this fundamental distinction and for advocating that Purdue accept the burdens of free expression in order to foster “a genuine free speech environment.”

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