Guest Column: Defending free speech on college campuses

Chicago Tribune

Free expression is not faring well on American college campuses these days. In some places, the problem is students taking grave offense at opinions that merit only minor umbrage or none at all. In others, it’s official speech codes that chill discussion. In still others, it’s administrators so intent on preventing sexual harassment that they avoid open discussion of gender-related matters.

There is a lot to be said for making people aware of the ways in which their words and deeds can do harm. No one wants to go back to the days when casual expressions of racial prejudice were common, or when women were mocked for taking places that should have gone to men, or when some professors made passes at students.

But it’s important not to go so far in protecting undergraduates that they lose the spontaneous and open interactions they need to understand the world and the society in which they live. An education that spares students from unwanted challenges to their thinking is not much of an education.

Luckily, there’s pushback against this trend. University of California regents issued a report deploring anti-Semitism but rejected demands to include all forms of anti-Zionism in the condemnation. When students at Emory University protested messages in support of Donald Trump chalked on campus sidewalks as an attempt to intimidate minority groups, the school president heard them out but took no action.

A female undergraduate at Harvard wrote an article that assailed the prevailing atmosphere there, recalling a class in which one student said “she would be unable to sit across from a student who declared that he was strongly against abortion” and a discussion in which she was rebuked for citing a Bible verse because it violated a “safe space.”

Last month, the American Association of University Professors released a report arguing that the federal law known as Title IX, which bans discrimination on the basis of sex, has been stretched to punish language and ideas that should be allowed.

It cited examples such as Patty Adler, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder who had long taught a popular sociology course called “Deviance in U.S. Society.” She was threatened by her dean with forced retirement after some students complained about role-playing exercises. The threat was rescinded but a disillusioned Adler chose to retire. Louisiana State University associate professor Teresa Buchanan was fired, over the objections of a faculty committee, because some students complained about her use of profanity.

Students deserve to be shielded from sexual harassment by other students or faculty members, and sexual harassment can include the creation of a climate so hostile (to women, gays and so on) that they feel threatened. But the AAUP panelists contend that the federal government defines the term so broadly—and makes it so hard to defend against such charges—that innocent people are wrongly tarred and education suffers.

“Overly broad definitions of hostile environment harassment work at cross-purposes with the academic freedom and free speech rights necessary to promote learning in an educational setting,” they said. “Learning can be best advanced by more free speech that encourages discussion of controversial issues rather than by using punitive administrative and legal fiat to prevent such discussions from happening at all.”

The University of Chicago has taken the lead in defending free speech on campus. Last year, a special committee issued a statement noting the importance of civility but upholding “the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.”

We hope the administrators, faculty and students of other universities are listening.