On Tuesday, I praised the administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) for defending free speech on campus in the face of racist and sexist tweets directed at UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise. This morning, Chancellor Wise herself chimes in with a column at Inside Higher Ed, where she strongly echoes the university’s earlier commitment to upholding its students’ speech rights, while calling for the campus community to use the incident as a learning experience in order to create positive change. Wise writes:
The negative comments, as offensive as they were, are protected speech. But what is protected expression and what is the level of discourse we as educators expect from our students can be very different things. And the size of that gap – so evident this week – is what has been most disappointing. Racist, intimidating or culturally derogatory epithets have no place in any debate in any circumstance. Of all places, a university should be home to diverse ideas and differing perspectives, where robust – and even intense – debate and disagreement are welcomed.
If FIRE’s past experience is any indication, UIUC has almost certainly come under tremendous pressure to punish the students involved. And given the way so many other universities have responded to that kind of pressure, UIUC’s repeated public statements about the protected nature of the speech are welcome. While the university’s written policies on free speech could still use improvement, the university deserves credit for respecting the First Amendment and allowing conversation to flourish in lieu of censorship.