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What Campus Leaders Had To Say About Free Speech This Week [UPDATED]

Campus leaders have recently been taking advantage of opportunities—sometimes under pressure—to explain their approach to freedom of speech and other principles enshrined in the First Amendment. How did they fare with such tests this week?

The Good

Washington State University (WSU)

Members of WSU’s administration—President Kirk Schulz, Provost and Executive Vice President Dan Bernardo, and Interim Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Melynda Huskey—penned a “message on Free Speech” that went out to WSU students this week. In it, they reminded students of the university’s role in the free exchange of ideas:

Public universities are uniquely suited to be laboratories for free speech, a place where we can practice the skills needed in civic engagement. WSU creates space for ideas to be expressed, explored, considered, examined, critiqued, and supported.

We’re happy to see this statement from WSU’s administration and hope to see similar remarks from more universities in the future.

University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Tensions were high this week when pictures of a Nazi flag hanging in a residence hall window and a photo posted to Snapchat of a student with a rifle—both linked to UNC Charlotte’s campus—surfaced on social media. Chancellor Philip L. Dubois characterized the pictures as “hurtful and divisive,” but explained the reasons why UNC Charlotte could not punish students linked to them:

At the same time, as a public institution, we are mindful that even distasteful and narrow-minded speech and expression are protected by the First Amendment. The constitutional protections afforded to insulting and offensive speech are the same ones we observed in encouraging and safeguarding the peaceful demonstration activities that were held on our campus last week. When speech is determined to be inconsistent with what it means to be a Noble Niner but does not violate law or University policy, it is incumbent upon faculty, staff, and students to speak purposefully to voice our values, making it known to the community and to the world that the actions of a handful of individuals do not reflect our collective conscience and character.

In situations like this, it’s not always easy to stand up for freedom of speech. But there are reasons why the First Amendment protects even the most deeply offensive expression. For a reminder, read about the ACLU’s 1978 decision to defend the First Amendment rights of a Neo-Nazi group that wished to march through Skokie, Illinois, the home of many Holocaust survivors, and listen to Aryeh Neier, the ACLU’s then-executive director, discuss his decision to take the case on FIRE’s So to Speak podcast.

We applaud Chancellor Dubois for recognizing the importance of both defending the right to offensive speech and responding to that speech as well.

University of North Dakota (UND)

On Wednesday, UND President Mark Kennedy announced that UND would not punish students involved in posting and posing for racially charged pictures, including one of students in blackface, sent via Snapchat. Kennedy’s comments:

As part of the conversation with student leaders, we talked about the concept of Zero Tolerance. While I appreciate the desire for such a policy, it is unachievable under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The challenge we all face is to find the balance between wanting to eliminate expressions of racism and bigotry and supporting the free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment. If we value freedom of speech, we must acknowledge that some may find the expressions of others unwelcome, painful, or even, offensive. We can, however, speak out and condemn such expressions, and we can work to create a more welcoming and inclusive environment.

Like Dubois, Kennedy reminded students and faculty that while UND cannot punish offensive speech, members of the campus community can speak out against it.

Update (October 13, 2016): Minnesota's StarTribune reports that the students who posted the photo containing the caption "locked the black bitch out" allegedly locked a black student out of her dorm room and used her phone to post the picture to the locked-out student's Snapchat account. If the students responsible for the picture used another student's phone and Snapchat account to post it, as they're alleged to have done, those actions are not protected by the First Amendment.

Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI)

It’s a given that if the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) comes to campus, controversy will follow—but censorship doesn’t have to. At IUPUI, Chancellor Nasser Paydar tweeted in advance of WBC’s visit, reminding students that opposition to the group’s message does not require silencing it:

It wasn’t just Paydar who expressed support for answering speech they don’t like with “more speech.” The Indianapolis Star reports that hundreds of members of the IUPUI community joined in a counter-protest on Tuesday and, as IUPUI assistant professor Steve McKenzie said, “countered it with something positive."

University of Minnesota (UMN)

At the University of Minnesota, there’s been plenty of controversy this week over a College Republican student group’s decision to post a “Build The Wall” banner on a bridge used for student group advertisements on UMN’s campus. The painting inspired protests and, unfortunately, vandalism. UMN President Eric Kaler pointed out that students are welcome to disagree with the message posted by the College Republicans, but stated that vandalism is not the appropriate way for people to respond to speech that offends them:

People in our community may disagree with the sentiment expressed. However, while the university values free speech, the subsequent vandalism of the panel is not the way to advance a conversation.

In an email to campus on Wednesday, Kaler invited students to discuss the painting at a Campus Climate event, and reaffirmed UMN’s commitment to defending political speech:

It is especially important for our University to respect political speech. It is at the core of our academic tradition, our political process, and the laws of the land.

Kaler is right—vandalism is not an acceptable way to counter speech one finds offensive, and UMN has a responsibility to respect its students’ speech rights.

University of Denver (DU)

In yesterday’s statement addressing the controversy over racially charged messages posted to a DU free speech wall, administrators, including Chancellor Rebecca Chopp, started off by conveying the university’s commitment to fostering discussion:

A university is a place for learning—for a free exchange of ideas. DU is a place where students, faculty and staff from all backgrounds come together around a common mission. Our aspiration is nothing short of a robust, engaged community where conflicting ideas are discussed and considered with open minds and genuine intentions.

These discussions are rarely easy, but they can only happen if administrators don’t stand in the way.

The Bad

University of Michigan (UMich)

Contrary to UMN’s condemnation of vandalism of speech, UMich President Mark Schlissel appeared to endorse it in a statement that fails to make our list of speech-friendly statements by a wide mark. As my colleague Adam Steinbaugh covered in detail, Schlissel rightfully informed students that he could not censor offensive posters. But then went on to invite students to do exactly that:

This idea of taking down posters—I can’t legally take down a poster. I think I’d be sued and fired. But you can. And if you don’t feel safe taking down a poster, call my office. I’ll come stand next to you while you take it down. You’ll be plenty safe.

If there’s chalk on the Diag [where chalking is permitted] that offends you, that’s racist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, you fill in the blank, anti-Islamic—get a bucket, call me, I’m going to stand next to you while you erase it. Then you’ll be safe. That’s how we can fight this, together. And I know that many of my faculty and leadership colleagues will be happy to do the same if you can’t get ahold of me.

This is a terrible message to send to students, and a departure from Schlissel’s earlier calls for students to “spread ideas” in response to hate. While other administrators mentioned above empowered students by stating that they can use their own voices to dispute offensive speech, Schlissel instead asked them to just silence it.

The role of freedom of expression has increasingly been at the center of a number of recent debates on campus—and we’re pleased to see that, for the most part, the discourse has been positive. We’ll continue to report on administrators’ contributions to those conversations.

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