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The test of free expression is protecting speech that offends (Updated)

Post updated January 6, 2017*

In recent weeks, many university campuses, including the UW, have become the focus of debate and discussion about the intersection of free expression and offensive speech. As this Seattle Times story notes, the UW is proud to host some of the world’s great thinkers and artists on our campuses; we are also — as I have written on this blog and elsewhere — a public institution firmly committed and legally bound to permit speech that falls within the broad definition of protected expression.

Have questions about free speech on campus?

Join us on Tuesday, Jan 10 at 4:30 p.m. at the Intellectual House for a program to examine free speech in the context of higher ed.


  • Michelle Storms, Deputy Director of Seattle’s ACLU
  • Ron Collins, Harold S. Shefelman Scholar Professor of Law at UW
  • Nadine Strossen, John Marshall Harlan II Professor of Law at New York Law School

Learn more

I want to state clearly, especially to the thousands of people who have contacted my office with concerns about an upcoming visit by a speaker known for racist and misogynist provocation, that we understand and empathize with their objections and frustration. The statements he has made at other campuses are clearly in opposition to the University of Washington’s values and our commitment to nurturing an inclusive, compassionate and welcoming community.  He is not someone I would ever invite to speak here, not because I don’t value a robust or difficult discussion about a range of policies or social issues — such conversations are necessary and college campuses are ideal places to have them — but because this is clearly not the kind of conversation he is seeking. He generates heat, not light, and his manner of engagement is anything but civil, respectful or conducive to true dialogue across differences, of which we need more, not less.

Nonetheless, the right to free speech and expression is broad and allows for speech that is offensive and that most of us would consider disrespectful, and even sexist or racist.  As a public university committed to the free exchange of ideas and free expression, we are obligated to uphold this right. We have reviewed this event with the State Attorney General’s office and there are not, at this time, sufficient grounds to ban him from speaking on our campus, although we continue to monitor what is going on as he speaks elsewhere.

It may be helpful to know that invitations and approvals of campus speakers reside with the sponsoring unit or organization and the Use of University Facilities Committee, not the president’s office. In this instance, the speaker has been invited to speak by students who are members of the College Republicans. They will be responsible for expenses, including any security costs.

Speakers like this thrive on negative attention and our Student Life office is working on developing other programming at the same time that would offer an alternative gathering space for the many who find no value in speakers like this. Please be assured, the fact that he is speaking at our University does not mean that he in any way represents our University or our values.

I also know that some are hearing about this speaker, and others of his ilk, being banned from speaking at other universities. That does appear to be the case at some private universities but, importantly, not at public ones. In a few cases, his events at public universities have been postponed, or were rumored but never planned. To the very best of my knowledge — and we have been closely monitoring — no public universities have banned this speaker. While I generally believe the best antidote to objectionable free speech is more free speech, in this case I believe that letting him speak without interruption or audience beyond like-minded people would deny him the thing he seems to want most: attention. But that’s a choice individuals will have to make on their own.

Finally, I want to say to this speaker and anyone who seeks to make themselves or their cause seem big by belittling others: you may get a lot of attention in the short run, but in the long run this strategy is a loser. If all you can do is attack and tear down those you disagree with, then I encourage you to level your attacks at me. While some of the points you claim to be trying to make are worthy of discussion, I am proud to stand in opposition to those who are not only willing, but actively looking to stir up hate and fear, especially when it is targeted at those who are already the most vulnerable.

*Update: Earlier this week, we learned of a flyer anonymously posted to Facebook targeting the leader of the UW College Republicans regarding the invitation to this speaker. This is wholly inappropriate and once we learned of the flyer, we reached out to the affected student to offer assistance and support, including resources in the UW Police Department should she need them. The flyer will be promptly removed if it is found on campus. Harassment conducted by members of the UW community is unacceptable and subject to disciplinary action.