In March, University of Oklahoma President David Boren summarily expelled two members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity for a racist chant. Similarly, last month, Bucknell University President John Bravman expelled three students for allegedly making racist comments during a radio broadcast. At the beginning of April, Duke University disciplined a student suspected of hanging a noose from a tree on campus. The school is currently exploring “potential criminal violations.”
The list of recent campus overreactions to speech and expression doesn’t end there—it also includes suspension of a varsity athletic team for two members’ comments at a party (Mary Washington), mandatory diversity training in response to bathroom graffiti (Connecticut College) and suspension of a student simply for writing a racial slur (South Carolina).
It is evident by these examples and a myriad more that colleges and universities are having a problem with speech. Instead of promoting the college as a place for exchange, campuses have capitalized on recent events to condemn and act against a perceived epidemic of unpopular and unallowable views. Their actions are improper at best and illegal at worst.
Let’s be clear. There is no such thing as an unallowable view on a college campus.
The growing move toward a hive mind of thought debases education and what it stands for. Education requires thinking, and thinking requires diversity. Diversity is most simply the presence of difference, so a requisite for education is the presence of different thought. Anything short of this is illogical.
In 1973, the United States Supreme Court held that “mere dissemination of ideas—no matter how offensive to good taste—on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name of ‘conventions of decency.’” This mentality applies to private colleges, as long as the school promises students and faculty free speech rights—as the vast majority of them do.
Thus, the actions administration and students have taken in the examples above run aground of both the letter and spirit of the law.
Not every school has taken such drastic action though. In fact, there are still examples of universities defending expression on their campus in the face of student backlash and protest. For example, University of Maryland President Wallace Loh refused to discipline a student for using racial slurs in an email seen by many on campus because the words fell well within his rights to speak.
Case Western Reserve University promises members of the campus community a right to say the unpopular. The first line of the university’s “Statement on Ethics” reads, “At CWRU, as elsewhere, we recognize that to fulfill these purposes requires a norm of expected conduct shared by all in the University community, governed by truthfulness, openness to new ideas, and consideration for the individual rights of others, including the right to hold and express opinions different from our own.”
In this statement, the university embraces a full-throated defense of free thought and expression. Unfortunately, the same can hardly be said for the students.
CWRU students are failing to engage in ongoing dialogues, and we’re not talking about programs like Sustained Dialogue or a Bias Reporting System. We’re talking about the much less complicated reality of freedom of thought, speech and expression.
For the past three years, we have been writing individual columns in a space in the Opinion section of this paper. We have both received a number of letters to the editor over that time, reactionary anger on social media and even personal emails. When these responses have been well thought out and devoid of extraneous emotion, we simply smiled.
Student newspapers exist as an open platform for the dialogue needed to ensure the success of college as a marketplace of ideas. Newspapers in general exist as a similar platform for the masses.
We smiled at those willing to enter the discussion we started because it offered us an opportunity to grow. Those community members challenged us, made us think and sometimes compelled us to alter our own opinions.
Whether from different academic or cultural background or individual life experience, varied opinions exist on and off the CWRU campus. Viewpoint diversity is always a good thing, and on a college campus, viewpoint diversity and speech to express such viewpoints are among the most hallowed of liberties.
The greater exposure one has to different opinions and viewpoints, the better off they are intellectually. True intellectual growth cannot occur without a strong presence of difference, so quelching speech and seeking to eradicate viewpoint diversity leads to close-mindedness.
Students have a right to object to whatever someone else on their campus says. Students have a right to be angry. Where students go wrong is when they attempt to silence what someone else wants to say. Students don’t have that right.
That type of reaction to speech is akin to fascism and other dictatorial dogma of the last century. The only proper response, from those in power or from those on the ground, is a dose of speech in return. In short, one should listen and respond rather than feel and react.
However, students at universities are seemingly ignorant to this fact. They increasingly argue behind a veil of liberalism, progressivism or any other stance associated with open-mindedness, despite the blatant irony that a desire to silence speech directly is close-minded and contradicts what they supposedly believe.
Greg Lukianoff, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, puts it nicely when he says, “Increasingly we’re seeing calls from campus communities for freedom from speech, not freedom of speech…This is a dangerous problem for institutions that are supposed to serve as ‘the marketplace of ideas.’” These calls for intervention turn on its head Supreme Court Justice Holmes’ conclusion that “[speech protections exist] not for those who agree with us but for the thought we hate.”
Lukianoff’s “marketplace of ideas,” an analogy originally drawn up by the Supreme Court, gets at the heart of the issue. In that space, students will disagree. Opinions will clash and it will be uncomfortable. But discomfort breeds innovation. Without it, we stagnate and lose perspective.
It is not right, and is entirely unethical (let alone illegal) to silence the voices one disagrees with. Even if the opinion personally challenges you, personal slight is never a reason to curtail someone’s expression. Students would do well to learn that lesson.
Andrew Breland and Jacob Martin are both weekly opinion columnists for The Observer.