WASHINGTON, November 16, 2015—For the second time this year, President Barack Obama publicly defended the importance of free speech on campus. In an interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos (video; transcript) that aired yesterday, President Obama praised student activists, but also said he disagrees with what Stephanopoulos described as “militant political correctness” on campus, whereby some activists seek to shut down opposing viewpoints.
“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,” said President Obama in the seven-minute interview. “The civil rights movement happened because there was civil disobedience, because people were willing to go to jail, because there were events like Bloody Sunday, but it was also because the leadership of the movement consistently stayed open to the possibility of reconciliation and sought to understand the views, even views that were appalling to them, of the other side.”
The president said he discusses these issues with his daughters around the dinner table. He told Stephanopoulos that while he wants his daughters to stand up for society’s voiceless and vulnerable, he also wants them to hear out the other side’s arguments.
“I tell them, I want you also to be able to listen. I don’t want you to think that a display of your strength is simply shutting other people up, and that part of your ability to bring about change is going to be by engagement and understanding the viewpoints and the arguments of the other side,” President Obama said.
“And so 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 went on to discuss why he believes free speech is a crucial component of a well-functioning democracy. He urged activists to answer “bad ideas” with better ideas, not censorship:
“[We] have these values of free speech. And it’s not free speech in the abstract. The purpose of that kind of free speech is to make sure that we are forced to use argument and reason and words in making our democracy work. And, you know, you don’t have to be fearful of somebody spouting bad ideas. Just out-argue them. Beat ’em. Make the case as to why they’re wrong. Win over adherents. That’s how things work in a democracy.”
The president’s comments follow a contentious week on college campuses across the country. In high-profile controversies at Yale University and the University of Missouri, some activists protesting against racism on campus have used tactics that run contrary to principles of free expression. At Yale, students demanded the resignation of two faculty members from their roles as directors of a residential college for being critical of an administrative email urging students not to wear offensive Halloween costumes. At the University of Missouri, students and faculty were caught on camera preventing student journalists from covering protests on campus.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, 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.
Katie Barrows, Communications Coordinator, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Schools: University of Missouri – Columbia