Last week, posters with “racially charged messages” appeared on the campus of the University of Michigan, prompting condemnations from students and the university’s administration. University President Mark Schlissel promptly issued a statement affirming the institution’s commitment to “defend[ing] any individual’s right to free speech on our campus,” while decrying the content of the posters. On Sunday, however, Schlissel made a troubling clarification to that statement, saying that while the First Amendment prohibits administrators from censoring the posters, he would gladly stand by students while they tore down messages they disagreed with.
Schlissel’s remarks, transcribed below, were captured on video:
I have absolutely no idea to how to prevent one person with hate in their heart from posting a poster in a building of a public university. Don’t know how to do that. I’ve never heard a good idea about how to do it. We’re not going to turn the University of Michigan into a police state where there are people and cameras everywhere you look and you’ll never have a private moment. Because that’s what it would take to prevent hateful posters by one sick and mean and terrible person to hurt all of us. So I don’t know how to do it.
That’s why what we’re talking about these things, we’re talking about, to respond to these things—that’s what we know how to do. We know how to support one another. We know how to step up and declare these things for what they are: hateful, racist acts.
This idea of taking down posters—I can’t legally take down a poster. I think I’d be sued and fired. But you can. And if you don’t feel safe taking down a poster, call my office. I’ll come stand next to you while you take it down. You’ll be plenty safe.
If there’s chalk on the Diag [where chalking is permitted] that offends you, that’s racist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, you fill in the blank, anti-Islamic—get a bucket, call me, I’m going to stand next to you while you erase it. Then you’ll be safe. That’s how we can fight this, together. And I know that many of my faculty and leadership colleagues will be happy to do the same if you can’t get ahold of me.
The appropriate response to offensive speech is more speech, not less. When the communicative value of expression relies on preventing another from speaking—through tearing down posters, defacing banners, or shouting down speakers—that isn’t ‘more’ speech. The marketplace of ideas works by convincing people that an idea is wrong, not by preventing others from hearing views they find offensive. Instead of giving students a bucket of water to erase chalk, Schlissel should give them chalk to respond. Instead of standing by while posters are torn down, Schlissel should stand guard while additional posters are put up. Erasing offensive speech does little more than whitewash the reminder that views many find offensive persist, and hinders the opportunity to publicly contradict those views.
Schlissel’s remarks endorsing censorship stand in contrast to his earlier responses to offensive speech:
— Dr. Mark Schlissel (@DrMarkSchlissel) October 3, 2016
Spreading ideas is indeed the right approach. Hopefully, Schlissel’s comments about censoring student speech are but a momentary departure from it.