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Salman Rushdie Champions Free Speech, Chides Coddled Students at ‘Chicago Tribune’ Award Ceremony

Acclaimed writer Salman Rushdie used his platform as the winner of 2015’s Chicago Tribune Literary Award for lifetime achievement on Saturday to warn of the dangers of censorship on college campuses.

The Tribune reports Rushdie’s comments about his writing drew raucous laughter from the sold-out crowd of 1,800 at Chicago’s UIC Forum, but discussion of the state of free speech at colleges and universities turned the mood serious.

On the topic of efforts by students and campus administrators to censor speakers, Rushdie said, "It's nonsense, and it needs to be called out as nonsense and rejected as thoroughly as possible."

The Tribune reports Rushdie discussed a controversy at Duke University that we covered here on The Torch back in August. According to the Tribune, Rushdie said:

"There was an episode a few months ago where (some incoming) students at Duke University refused to read Alison Bechdel's book ('Fun Home') because it was written by a lesbian and offended their religious beliefs. I thought, 'Maybe you should just not be at Duke. Maybe you should just step down and make room for people who actually want to learn something.'"

He also decried the idea that college students should expect their institutions to provide “safe spaces” where ideas go unchallenged and beliefs unoffended. Instead, Rushdie commented that higher education exists to protect ideas themselves and that getting an education is about thoughtfully considering all viewpoints:

"The university is the place where young people should be challenged every day, where everything they know should be put into question, so that they can think and learn and grow up," he said. "And the idea that they should be protected from ideas that they might not like is the opposite of what a university should be. It's ideas that should be protected, the discussion of ideas that should be given a safe place. The university should be a safe space for the life of the mind. That's what it's for."

This is not the first time Rushdie has strongly condemned the new state of censorship. Earlier this year at the University of Vermont, he criticized the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France and the vilification of the publication’s writers. Last month at Germany’s Frankfurt Book Fair, he gave what the New York Post called a “unified theory of free speech” when he compared the Paris attacks to the students not wanting to be intellectually challenged:

“Limiting freedom of expression is not just censorship, it is also an assault on human nature,” Rushdie said. “Expression of speech is fundamental to all human beings. We are language animals, we are story-telling animals. Without that freedom of expression, all other freedoms fail.”

We at FIRE are heartened by Rushdie’s comments at the Tribune award ceremony. For the full account, please read the Tribune’s coverage.

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