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President Obama: ‘Feel Free to Disagree With Somebody, But Don’t Try to Just Shut Them Up’

By December 21, 2015

For the third time in recent months, President Obama has weighed in on campus free speech issues. In a wide-ranging interview with National Public Radio’s Steve Inskeep, President Obama once again expressed his concern that there is an unwillingness to hear other points of view on campus.

“[M]y concern is not whether there is campus activism,” said President Obama. “I think that’s a good thing. But let kids ask questions and let universities respond. What I don’t want is a situation in which particular points of view that are presented respectfully and reasonably are shut down, and we have seen that sometimes happen.”

President Obama also addressed and rebuked “disinvitations”—demands by students and faculty members that an invited guest speaker, usually a commencement speaker, be disinvited for something that a speaker did, said, or believes. (FIRE has compiled a database of disinvitation attempts dating back to 2000.)

“There have been times where you start seeing on college campuses students protesting somebody like the director of the IMF or Condi Rice speaking on a campus because they don’t like what they stand for,” said President Obama. “Well, feel free to disagree with somebody, but don’t try to just shut them up.”

FIRE wholeheartedly agrees. Below is a transcript of the relevant portion of President Obama’s interview with NPR. You can listen to the full interview, which will air in segments throughout the week on NPR’s Morning Edition, at this link.

NPR’s STEVE INSKEEP: Let me follow up on a couple of things you mentioned. You mentioned slavery. Among the many protests this year are two small but symbolically interesting ones at Ivy League universities. At your alma mater, Harvard Law, there is a seal for the school that is based on the family crest of a slave owner. At Yale there is a school named after John C. Calhoun, who was a great defender of slavery.

The call is to get rid of those symbols. What would you have the universities do?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You know, as president of the United States I probably don’t need to wade into every specific controversy at a …

INSKEEP: But you can do it. We’re here.

OBAMA: But here’s what I will say generally. I think it’s a healthy thing for young people to be engaged and to question authority and to ask why this instead of that, to ask tough questions about social justice. So I don’t want to discourage kids from doing that.

As I’ve said before, I do think that there have been times on college campuses where I get concerned that the unwillingness to hear other points of view can be as unhealthy on the left as on the right, and that, you know …

INSKEEP: Meaning listen to people that you might initially think are bigoted or …

OBAMA: Yes, there have been times where you start seeing on college campuses students protesting somebody like the director of the IMF or Condi Rice speaking on a campus because they don’t like what they stand for. Well, feel free to disagree with somebody, but don’t try to just shut them up.

If somebody doesn’t believe in affirmative action, they may disagree — you may disagree with them. I disagree with them, but have an argument with them. It is possible for somebody not to be racist and want a just society but believe that that is something that is inconsistent with the Constitution. And you should engage.

So my concern is not whether there is campus activism. I think that’s a good thing. But let kids ask questions and let universities respond. What I don’t want is a situation in which particular points of view that are presented respectfully and reasonably are shut down, and we have seen that sometimes happen.