Oberlin President Discusses Dissent and Censorship Trends on Campus

November 28, 2014

In a letter to the campus community last week, President Marvin Krislov praised the role of open discourse on campus and warned students that the academic environment at Oberlin College suffers when freedom of speech is stifled.

Krislov noted that Oberlin has, unfortunately, played a role in the growing trend of censorship on campus:

[A]t Oberlin, where we typically applaud the value of free and open discussion and the clash of ideas and views, this national trend has appeared on a few occasions. Audience members who disagreed with a speaker or speakers’ views have disrupted the event with heckling, demonstrations, and in some cases, ad hominem attacks. In most instances, the event has continued after some disruption and delay and after those who created the ruckus departed.

Pushing back against the idea that students should meet offensive viewpoints with censorship instead of debate, dissent, and protest, Krislov advocated for students to share their opinions in a more productive way.

I do not believe in stifling dissent. That would be antithetical to my values and to Oberlin’s values. It’s okay to boycott an event. It’s okay to picket the event or distribute materials questioning a speaker’s position on issues. If, during the course of a talk, you feel compelled by the tone or content to leave, that’s your right. But others may not share your feelings. They have the right to stay and listen. And that right should be respected even as we continue to talk as a community about what shape and what way expressing and experiencing our disagreements should take.

Krislov then cited Oberlin’s speech-protective policies to remind students that freedom of speech is necessary for the thriving Oberlin academic community:

Freedom of discourse lies at the heart of the academic enterprise. Indeed, Oberlin’s dissent policy states, “…that freedom of speech and freedom of expression be guaranteed to individuals and groups to express whatever views they wish, so long as they do not interfere with the rights of others. The resolution calls upon all members of the college community to continue to foster a climate in which this tradition of academic and civic freedom is both cherished and asserted.”

“Within this context, Oberlin College emphatically affirms the right of all its members to protest and demonstrate. Both civil authority and college regulations reflect the obligation to balance rights of free speech and expression against such other rights as privacy and normal conduct of business. Thus, the college deems inappropriate any actions that intrude upon the rights of other members of the community, including reasonable expectations of peace and privacy and tactics or behavior that include coercion, intimidation, or harassment. Additionally, obstruction of the normal conduct of business of the college, or of members or guests of the community, is considered inappropriate.”

Krislov points out, “This policy is at work every day on our campus,” and FIRE hopes that Krislov is willing to revise Oberlin’s red and yellow light policies as a demonstration of the administration’s commitment to freedom of speech on campus.

Read the rest of Krislov’s letter on Oberlin’s website.

Schools:  Oberlin College