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In wake of troubling campus incidents, students stand up for free speech

Last week, a staff editorial in Wellesley College’s student newspaper, The Wellesley News, garnered significant public attention for arguing that “[s]hutting down rhetoric that undermines the existence and rights of others is not a violation of free speech.” The editorial also had a creepy whiff of ideological re-education about it, arguing that while many people cannot help arriving on campus with “problematic” views instilled in them by our “discriminatory and biased society,” at some point, these benighted students simply deserve what’s coming to them: “if people are given the resources to learn and either continue to speak hate speech or refuse to adapt their beliefs, then hostility may be warranted.” In response to extensive public criticism, the editors clarified that by “hostility” they did not mean physical violence, but they have not backed away from their central argument that so-called “hate speech” is not free speech.

The Wellesley editorial was just one in a series of recent events that have painted a grim picture of college students’ attitudes towards free speech. After Heather Mac Donald’s thwarted attempt to speak at Claremont McKenna College, for example, a group of students at Pomona College (one of CMC’s fellow Claremont Colleges) have demanded that Pomona’s president inform the student body that the college “does not tolerate hate speech.” The students argue that “[t]he idea that the truth is an entity for which we must search, in matters that endanger our abilities to exist in open spaces, is an attempt to silence oppressed peoples,” and that “[t]he idea that the search for this truth involves entertaining Heather Mac Donald’s hate speech is illogical.”

These events have, deservedly, received a lot of media coverage — they evince a disregard for freedom that should trouble anyone who values our most basic rights. But it’s important to note that, at the same time, other students have come out strongly in defense of free speech.

Last night, the University of Pennsylvania’s student newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, posted a staff editorial that is every bit as encouraging as the Wellesley editorial was disheartening. In a nod to Wellesley, the DP editors express their disappointment “that some other student newspapers’ editorial boards are not standing up for the principles of free speech and dialogue on which student newspapers depend.” The editors then go on to say:

The willingness to let someone speak on a college campus must not be confused with endorsement of the views expressed. Penn students have exemplified this in their reactions to the homophobic “preachers” whose appearance on campus has now become something of a routine.

The term “hate speech” can be useful for the purpose of arguing that some speech ought not to be taken seriously. Subjectively applying the label, however, does not render the speech in question legally or ethically subject to violent or coercive suppression. “Hate speech” is too flexible a concept to be used in this way. Even when we are firmly convinced that a speaker’s positions are motivated by hatred, to threaten or carry out physical aggression remains, always, an unacceptable response.

Bravo to the editorial board at The Daily Pennsylvanian for their full-throated defense of free speech. (And, I should add, to the university itself for being worthy of those freedom-loving students; Penn is one of the few schools to earn FIRE’s highest, green light rating for free speech.)

Another group of students that deserves praise is the student government of the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts — the largest of the university’s schools and colleges. Although UM’s Central Student Government rejected a pro-free-speech resolution in late March, the LSA student government passed a similar resolution last week, and issued a strong accompanying statement in support of free speech. In that statement, the LSA student government urges the university to adopt the Chicago principles, and says:

Free speech is a right and liberty that we hold, and in no other place is it more important than university campuses. Free and open discourse is essential to not only our education, but the preservation of ideas and the progress of thought. It is our responsibility, as bearers of this right, to protect it, and to let it flourish so that we might continue to uphold the legacy at this University of free and open discourse.

These developments deserve coverage just as much as the instances in which students demonstrate a disregard for the values of free speech and open debate. We hope they will inspire students elsewhere to speak out on behalf of free speech, even though that can, sadly, be an unpopular view to express on campus. And we hope they will prompt universities and the public at large to see that while there may be vocal groups of students demanding censorship, there are also many students who yearn for — and deserve — the freedom and openness that should characterize a university campus.

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