DES MOINES, Iowa, September 15, 2015—Echoing concerns the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has voiced for years, President Barack Obama came out strongly against campus censorship and speech-policing yesterday.
During a town hall meeting at North High School in Des Moines, Iowa, President Obama took a question from a local high school student that prompted him to remark at length about the crucial role that free speech plays in a college education. (VIDEO; transcript)
“Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them,” said President Obama. “But you shouldn’t silence them by saying, ‘You can’t come because, you know, I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.’ That’s not the way we learn either.”
President Obama criticized recent trends on campus, such as the rise in disinvitations of controversial speakers and the demand for “trigger warnings” on course materials. The trends have dominated headlines since last year as students increasingly come to expect protection from words and ideas they don’t like.
“I’ve heard of some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal toward women,” said President Obama. “I’ve got to tell you, I don’t agree with that, either. I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view.”
President Obama’s statements—and wording—strongly suggest that he read and shares the concerns presented by FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff and New York University professor Jonathan Haidt in their cover story for the September issue of The Atlantic. The article, titled “The Coddling of the American Mind,” argues that colleges are teaching students intellectual habits that not only shut down debate and chill candor, but even promote distorted ways of thinking.
“We are extremely pleased that President Obama shares FIRE’s concerns about the danger of trigger warnings, speaker disinvitations, and campus speech-policing,” said Lukianoff. “The increasing student demands for freedom from speech rather than freedom of speech harm our nation’s quality of discourse, supercharge political polarization, and, ultimately, will prove detrimental to the students themselves.”
President Obama’s remarks came as part of his “2015 Back-to-School Tour” with Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Following his remarks, President Obama asked Duncan for his thoughts on his comments, to which Duncan responded, “Amen.”
“We are glad that Secretary Duncan agrees with President Obama about the important role free speech plays on college campuses,” said Lukianoff. “Unfortunately, the Department of Education’s overly broad definition of harassment threatens the First Amendment rights of students and faculty, and its aggressiveness in enforcing that definition has caused universities nationwide to overreact by censoring protected speech. Secretary Duncan should put the President’s words into practice by reconsidering his department’s policies.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
Nico Perrino, Associate Director of Communications, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org