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University of Chicago Student Explains Why Free Speech Is a ‘Virtue’ on Campus

Last week I wrote about The Chicago Maroon’s shameful response to the University of Chicago (UC) Committee on Freedom of Expression’s new, FIRE-endorsed free speech policy statement. The consensus opinion of the student newspaper’s editors, who demanded the school censor more speech, not less, was incredibly disappointing to see, especially from student journalists.

Today, UC student Nicholas Saffran published an impressive rebuttal to the Maroon’s editorial, arguing that free, open discourse is actually a benefit, not a detriment, to the campus community. Saffran writes:

Too often, we conceive of free speech as merely a negative limit on what institutions, whether governments or universities, may do to restrict what we say and believe. We fail to acknowledge that these negative limits, which ought to be absolute, are grounded in a long tradition of arguments about why open, rigorous discussion is actually good for us. Free speech is a positive quality, even a virtue, which we all ought to embrace by actively engaging with views we find abhorrent.

The Maroon’s editorial board claimed that UC had a responsibility to censor “hate speech” to improve discourse on campus. Saffran argues that the marketplace of ideas, not institutions like UC, should be in charge of sorting out good and bad speech.

Free speech as a positive quality likely admits many more limits than does free speech as a negative quality. One need not seek out the views of the KKK in order to refine one’s views on race relations in America. Yet it is neither the place of the University nor the government to ban those views from ever being uttered. Rather, it is civil society that can and should shun those who hold such extreme and bigoted views.

Saffran closes by arguing that college campuses, where open discourse is needed the most, are often where it is hard to find, and he implores his fellow students to challenge themselves to engage with ideas they find difficult or offensive.

Especially on college campuses, we pigeonhole ourselves into small groups of our ideological compatriots and rarely take the other side seriously. We prefer to get our news from satirical outlets like The Daily Show that mock and deride the most ignorant people, instead of identifying and grappling with the arguments of the smartest of those with whom we disagree. Free speech certainly means something about what the University cannot do. Indeed, ironically, it means the University cannot stop us from being so narrow-minded if we so choose. Yet those very same principles compel us to go beyond our ideological blinders and to fully embrace truly open discourse.

Read the rest of Saffran’s important and timely column in The Chicago Maroon.

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