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On free expression, universities must light the way

As we head into the home stretch of the election season there is heightened potential for visits to the UW by candidates or speakers invited by campus groups to speak on topics that may be quite controversial. That makes it a good time to remind ourselves of the fundamental importance of freedom of expression to our University and our nation.

A university should—indeed it must—be a place where any policy or idea, even if offensive or outrageous, can be aired, discussed, examined and debated. That’s a cornerstone of our democratic system, and the University of Washington’s commitment to this ideal is rock solid.

This means we may hear things that many, perhaps most, find highly objectionable. That is often the price we pay for a healthy democracy, and it is a price I think is ultimately worth paying. Although we allow such speech, I also must recognize that purposefully offensive speech that is crass, vulgar or inflammatory is not a genuine call for constructive dialogue and debate. It simply creates heat, not enlightenment.

Passion, emotion and conviction should be celebrated. Often it is what drives us to take action, to stand up against injustice and to make our ideas count. As an educational institution, we strive to give our students the intellectual tools to shed light upon difficult, complicated, messy problems—to apply reason to what can be highly charged, emotional issues and to conduct the debate or discussion with civility and the utmost respect for others’ right to air their points of view.

As part of this commitment, this fall the UW School of Law will be sponsoring a forum about free speech and its limits. I hope as many of us as possible—especially students—will participate.

Our University’s motto is “lux sit”—let there be light. This year, and all years, let us strive to create light, not just heat, even when our dialogues are heated and positions passionately held.