Sunday, January 11, 2015

Can a major university get free speech right?

Colleges and universities are absolutely horrible over free speech matters. This includes speech codes, protest restrictions, hurt-feelings protections and lately, submitting to close-minded students who want to ban visiting lecturers, entertainment acts and graduation speakers with messages they don't like.

It's sad, really. Free speech really is being pushed out of university's, even though university's will pat themselves on the back over and over and dub themselves champions of free speech.

Well, kudos to the University of Chicago for taking a stand against this trend. Here are some excerpts from a new statement the university has released.

President Hanna Holborn Gray observed that “education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think. Universities should be expected to provide the conditions within which hard thought, and therefore strong disagreement, independent judgment, and the questioning of stubborn assumptions, can flourish in an environment of the greatest freedom.”

...Of course, the ideas of different members of the University community will often and quite naturally conflict. But it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive. Although the University greatly values civility, and although all members of the University community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.  
...As a corollary to the University’s commitment to protect and promote free expression, members of the University community must also act in conformity with the principle of free expression. Although members of the University community are free to criticize and contest the views expressed on campus, and to criticize and contest speakers who are invited to express their views on campus, they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe. To this end, the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.

By the way, here's what a violation of that last paragraph looks like. When you're pulling a fire alarm to keep a speaker from being heard, or physically barring the doors of an assembly hall, you are an enemy of free speech. It is the duty of the university to thwart those activities and protect the rights of people who want to hear ideas.

Let's hope the University of Chicago lives up to the great platitudes expressed here.

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