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Professors Shouldn’t Be Signing Free Speech Pacts Alone. Students, Step Up

A long list of professors have agreed to challenge their classrooms, and this will make a difference within the lecture halls, but that’s not enough.  Almost 400 professors have signed a pact to uphold the right to free speech on their college campuses since professors Robert P. George and Cornel West, respectively of Princeton and Harvard, published the appeal last week.

If students possess the brains we gloated about in our college applications, this should alarm us. This kind of edict should jerk us college kids from our self-absorbed slumber as if someone tossed a bucket of ice water into our dorm-issued bed at dawn’s first light.

In the statement, George and West defend the pursuit of truth and diversity of thought in an argument that fuses the freedom to disagree to the preservation of our democratic society. They celebrate and encourage humility and open-mindedness, dispositions they believe lead to productive discussions. They write: “All of us should be willing—even eager—to engage with anyone who is prepared to do business in the currency of truth-seeking discourse by offering reasons, marshaling evidence, and making arguments.”

Professors all around the country have signed this oath in response to a widespread campus culture that demands homologous thought in the name of equality. While these instructors have made an important choice, American universities won’t progress until their students practice a commitment to true equality, which values free speech through the practice of authentic deliberation, honest discussion, and civil discourse.

That’s why we students need to take our own oath and start protecting the free speech we are privileged to practice. Without it, we will abandon an education that could challenge and strengthen our dearest beliefs for a thorough, self-imposed brainwashing with a hefty price tag. And what would be the point of that?

Students Have a Deservedly Bad Free Speech Reputation

Earlier this month, a mob of students protesting at Middlebury College physically attacked a visiting author, Charles Murray, and injured Allison Stranger, the professor escorting him to his speech. This incident is a part of a trend, although the level of violence warranted it especially newsworthy.

This academic year has seen young scholars shout down speakers all over the country, branding themselves as the students who cried oppression. It is possible, of course, that some of those instances were good — the right to peaceably assemble is one Americans should always protect and practice when necessary. But most of these protests obstructed what could have been a productive discussion between a group of debate-ready students and a famous partisan with a strong commitment to his or her beliefs.

The right to free speech enables speakers, professors, and students of any ideological conviction to publicly justify their principles. That’s what makes this situation so ironic. Protesters can express their hatred for someone because of the First Amendment, but in doing so, they argue for the obstruction of the same right they’re using. If their wish were granted, and the right to free speech abolished, they would gag themselves as much as their opponents.

Debate and discourse, enabled by the right to free speech, are integral to the learning process. When we humble ourselves enough to entertain someone else’s views, we allow ourselves to consider why we might be wrong, which allows us to check our reasoning over and again. We have the opportunity to change our own minds or change the minds of others in how we perceive fundamental truths about humanity, and how those truths manifest themselves in today’s society. That’s exactly what education is supposed to do.

But students keep choosing to drown out those they consider intolerable. Immediately labeled as racists, sexists, bigots, and homophobes, anyone with a more conservative set of beliefs loses the chance to legitimize their thoughts. What’s more, the students who take that opportunity from them also give up their moment to hurl intelligent, tough questions that an expert ought to be able to answer. In condemning their rival as the world’s worst, they waste the occasion to articulate why they disagree and demand an answer to the trepidations that antagonize them.

College Doesn’t Mean Anything If We’re Not Here to Learn

A long list of professors have agreed to challenge their classrooms, and this will make a difference within the lecture halls, but that’s not enough. Students spend the majority of their time at school in cafeterias, coffee shops, dormitories, and libraries — places profs aren’t around to nudge conversations in a productive direction. Students have to take responsibility for their own discussions, which means they must be willing to have them in the first place, with a commitment to charity and humility as their guide. We need to ask each other why we hold certain truths, how those truths appear in society, and to what end we acknowledge them. We must examine our thoughts and the thoughts of our peers with frequency and curious and deliberate, yet kind, intent.

That’s when we will learn — when we argue, explain, defend, oppose, and question. These discussions, though sometimes uncomfortable, will guarantee us an education, and, more importantly, protect us from brainwashing.

Students, it’s time to take action and protect the right to free speech and diversity of thought that the Constitution preserves. If we humble ourselves and learn from our professors and our peers, we can champion equality, rather than substitute it for a prescription to a bland, homogenous narrative. It is time to shed our snowflake identity and don the strong, smart character we are capable of embodying.

Source:  The Federalist.  We have added section headings, information, and/or comments for clarity.

Addressing Bigotry Does More To Stop It Than Shutting Down Free Speech

Shouting down or shutting down free speech isn’t a triumph against ignorance; it perpetuates ignorance.

Osita Nwanevu wrote an article for Slate on Sunday titled “The Kids are Right: There’s Nothing Outrageous About Stamping Out Bigoted Speech.” The article addressed the recent protest at Middlebury College in response to guest speaker Charles Murray.

Without defining what constitutes “bigoted speech,” the author suggests that the utility of an individual’s speech may be dependent upon content, context, speaker, and audience. While he does not call for the criminalization of speech, he does support “politically correct standards of etiquette,” and argues that some speech “ought to be restricted not by law but by informal rules.”

A central tenet of Nwanevu’s argument is the important role of empathy on campus. As a professor, I concur with this sentiment. Empathy should be a part of any classroom philosophy. However, I do not accept the notion that empathy should be the governing principle of a classroom philosophy. A talented professor can teach and discuss topics that may be difficult for some students, while showing respect for their diverse experiences, backgrounds, and sensitivities. That respect should not require ignoring topics to avoid potential harm, however remote.

If higher education is still about escaping ignorance and groupthink by instilling values of critical thinking and healthy skepticism—and many of us still think it is—encountering ideas that we may personally find hurtful, unsubstantiated, or just plain wrong should be part of that enterprise.

As the American Association of University Professors argues, any approach that makes comfort a higher priority than intellectual engagement is wrong and creates a “chilly climate” for critical thinking in the classroom. True academic inquiry should be tested in the kiln of higher education, dragging the worst ideas into the sunlight to dispute them. Shielding students from certain ideas and certain speakers, even out of empathy, does not accomplish this lofty goal.

How Should Professors Respond To Offensive Speech?

A couple weeks ago, I was part of a panel discussion on civil discourse in the classroom. When asked how to deal with students who say offensive things, I answered that my best response is to simply ask the student: “Why?” and to inquire into the reasons behind their speech and how they know them to be true.

The purpose of my responsive question is intended, without taking sides with anyone and without being unnecessarily combative, to compel the student to think about and to defend their position. In my experience, this respectful response opens up the space for students to respond in an appropriate manner as well.

Free Speech And The Punishment of Class Removal

Admittedly, some faculty members in the audience nodded in agreement and others shared similar philosophies. Many faculty members, however, disagreed. For them, my approach was an incitement and, in their estimation, I wasn’t showing enough empathy for students who may have been hurt by the comment. Another professor insinuated that when a student says something in class that they deem to be bigoted, that student is permanently removed from class.

This approach to speech is akin to the Middlebury student who Nwanevu quotes saying: “While I defend Murray’s right to speak his mind, the fact that the college provided an elevated platform for him did more harm than good.” On one hand, this tacit endorsement of no-platforming certain speakers is a dangerous approach to ideas and to those with whom one deeply disagrees. It is the college-aged equivalent of covering one’s ears and pretending not to hear what the speaker has to say.

Shutting Down Free Speech Only Perpetuates Ignorance

Nwanevu does not explain how this no-platforming approach informs the students’ understanding of a topic, or how it draws them closer to the enlightened understanding promised by the liberal arts. He also doesn’t state how this addresses the bigotry that he sees in speakers, like Murray. Instead, all this approach does is to shield the students from an idea they don’t like. Shouting down or shutting down speech isn’t a triumph against ignorance; it perpetuates ignorance.

On the other hand, I fundamentally believe that my colleagues and Nwanevu are coming from a good place. I don’t believe that either is arguing in bad faith, nor do I think they have nefarious purposes. Sensitivity to and protection from the discrimination of historically underrepresented minorities on campus is a wholly legitimate purpose and it is why I support physical safe spaces.

However, I am not convinced that advocates like Nwanevu understand the consequences of their positions. I doubt whether many of the proponents realize that the protections they want may cause more harm than good. Empathizing with the students’ experiences is fine, but shielding students because you believe that they cannot handle ideas contrary to their own is, as the AAUP says, both “infantilizing and anti-intellectual.”

We Must Protect Against Dogmatism and Groupthink 

A much better approach to speech than Nwanevu’s is the recent work of Professors Robert P. George of Princeton and Cornel West of Harvard. In their statement, “Truth Seeking, Democracy, and Freedom of Thought and Expression,” they write,

“Our willingness to listen to and respectfully engage those with whom we disagree (especially about matters of profound importance) contributes vitally to the maintenance of a milieu in which people feel free to speak their minds, consider unpopular positions, and explore lines of argument that may undercut established ways of thinking. Such an ethos protects us against dogmatism and groupthink, both of which are toxic to the health of academic communities and to the functioning of democracies.”

This statement advocates for students to respectfully listen and to vehemently question those we disagree with, which is good for our universities and our democracy.

Nwanevu closes his article with the questions: “In the Trump era, should we side with those who insist that the bigoted must traipse unhindered through our halls of learning? Or should we dare to disagree?”

I think we should dare to disagree. But Nwanevu doesn’t want students to have that opportunity.

Source:  The Federalist.  We have added section headings, information, and/or comments for clarity.

Free speech under attack at UK colleges, report says

Censorship of free speech and cultures that have become increasingly “PC” are not just phenomena on campuses across the U.S. – a new report shows that they are also having a “chilling” effect on more than half the campuses in the United Kingdom.

The British Internet magazine spiked, which focuses on politics and society, released its third-annual report on campus censorship in the United Kingdom, and the results paint a grim picture.

The Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR) looked at 115 universities throughout the U.K. using a “traffic-light” system—red light, being the worst, marks a prohibition on a certain type of speech; the yellow category prevents speech from being too provocative; and a green light rating marks a “clean bill of health”.

Only 6% of Universities in U.K. Allow Unabridged Free Speech

The 2017 analysis showed that 63.5 percent of universities in the United Kingdom actively censor speech, and 30.5 percent stifle speech through excessive regulation, creating what the magazine calls a steady rise in censorship during the past three years. Only 6 percent of universities in the U.K., the study says, are “truly free.”

“They are regulating speech to a chilling degree across the board by restricting discussion of religion, transgenderism, ‘offensive’ Halloween costumes—you name it –and it’s cutting through most of the university sector,” 25-year-old Tom Slater, coordinator of the Free Speech University Rankings at spiked, told Fox News. “The underlying problem is political correctness. And, the problem is, if you allow that kind of censorship on campus, it tends to go unchecked and then it’s going to spread, with more and more people latching on.”

Spiked said the report’s results were produced through Freedom of Information requests and analysis of university student unions, published documents and policies, along with executive bans for universities over the past three years.

Examples of the regulations on free speech, according to Slater, including the ban of tabloid newspapers like The Sun as well as the censoring of Robin Thicke’s single “Blurred Lines,” which was banned at 25 universities in the U.K.

Source:  Fox News.  We have added section headings, information, and/or comments for clarity.