Obama Endorses Open Debate, on Campus and Beyond, In Farewell Address

January 11, 2017

In his farewell address to the nation last night, President Barack Obama took yet another opportunity to underscore the importance of debate and discourse in our society—including on America’s college campuses. The president asked citizens to help safeguard our democracy by rejecting “an intolerance of dissent and free thought” and recommitting to America’s founding ideals, including “the rule of law, human rights, freedoms of religion, speech, assembly, and an independent press.” A good start, President Obama said, is to simply talk to one another:

For too many of us, it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or college campuses or places of worship or our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions. … And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that’s out there.

Obama called the trend a “threat to our democracy.”

The president has repeatedly highlighted the role of college campuses in nurturing a culture of rigorous, even uncomfortable, debate.

At a September 2015 town hall meeting in Iowa, Obama appeared to reference FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff and New York University professor Jonathan Haidt’s Atlantic cover story “The Coddling of the American Mind” while speaking out against censorship and speech-policing on America’s campuses.

“I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view,” Obama told students in the audience. Even the most divisive speakers, Obama said, should be welcome on campus.

“Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them. But you shouldn’t silence them by saying, ‘You can’t come because, you know, my—I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.’ That’s not the way we learn either.”

In an interview with ABC News later that fall, Obama was again critical of those who would silence unpopular views on campus:

“Being a good citizen, being an activist, involves hearing the other side and making sure that you are engaging in a dialogue because that’s also how change happens,” Obama said of how free speech bolsters democracy and positive social change. “When I hear, for example, folks on college campuses saying, ‘We’re not going to allow somebody to speak on our campus because we disagree with their ideas or we feel threatened by their ideas,’ I think that’s a recipe for dogmatism and I think you’re not going to be as effective.”

The president has also discussed campus discourse at various commencement addresses, and emphasized his Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland’s track record of advocating for student speech rights.

FIRE appreciates the outgoing president’s expressions of support for free speech on campus during his time in office.