College courageous on free speech
Tribune News Service
Oct 29, 2016 by Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill
Freedom of expression isn't always comfortable; but it's always worth protecting.
That's why the University of Chicago was both correct and courageous when its dean of students, John Ellison, earlier this year welcomed the class of 2020 by making clear the university does not support practices that obstruct academic inquiry, such as so-called trigger warnings and intellectual safe spaces.
At a time of growing unrest both nationally and on campuses, Chicago reminded students that members of the university community must be prepared to engage with a variety of views and be free to express their opinions without fear of censorship or reprisal.
Chicago's fortitude stands in marked contrast to the many universities that now muzzle free speech in - the name of insulating students from potentially offensive views.
While everyone deserves courtesy, respect and civility, some schools have gone too far. On campus after campus, speakers across the political spectrum have been disinvited or barred from addressing campus audiences, limiting students' opportunities to listen and learn.
In this climate, defending free speech is not easy or popular for universities - a startlingly large number of their students now treat this fundamental right with great skepticism.
A Gallup survey from earlier this year found that 27 percent of college students approve of campus restrictions on 'expressing political views that are upsetting or offensive to certain groups,' and nearly half support restrictions on press coverage of protests.
Rising campus ambivalence about free expression makes the University of Chicago's message all the more necessary.
Academic freedom has helped to make America's system of higher education the envy of the world. Think of all of the discoveries and advances that never would have been possible if universities were so miserly in their definitions of legitimate speech and inquiry.
And therein lies the real danger for higher education. As institutions move in growing numbers to regulate speech and debate and shut out divergent views instead of engaging with challenging ideas, students stand to lose.
Welcoming all views is not only a matter of fairness but it is also essential to the mission of colleges and universities.
Sadly, American institutions of higher education are increasingly squelching speech and teaching students that it's acceptable for them to entertain only views with which they are comfortable.
Are universities truly preparing students for engaged citizenship by preaching inclusion while practicing censorship?
Not only does the constriction of academic freedom grate against Americans' First Amendment rights, it also falls far short of the values alumni and other supporters of higher education expect.
For a cautionary tale about the ramifications of undermining free speech, consider the University of Missouri, which rose to notoriety after an embarrassing episode in which an assistant professor, Melissa Click, assaulted a student journalist and requested 'some muscle' to remove him from a protest site.
After the university's botched handling of the incident, Mizzou alumni voted with their wallets, and giving plummeted.
The University of Chicago, fortunately, is leading a growing vanguard in the fight for free expression on campus.
In 2014, it adopted a model policy, now informally called the Chicago Principles, that was designed to protect and support campus free speech. Other universities including Princeton, the University of Wisconsin, American University and Johns Hopkins have adopted the same or similar principles as their own, ensuring that free speech will be properly protected.
President Obama, in delivering Howard University's May 2016 commencement speech, reminded his audience of the importance of engaging with all ideas and listening to speakers who have views with which they disagree.
The University of Chicago and President Obama have provided an important reminder that we only harm ourselves when we limit, rather than expand, speech and debate.
For the benefit of students and our country, let's hope that more colleges and universities follow Chicago's example.