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Free expression and what it means for all of us

Over the past year or two, issues surrounding the exercise of free speech and expression have come to the forefront at colleges around the country, including here at the University of Washington. Recently, we’ve also seen everything from sports leagues and broadcasters to major technology companies start to grapple with these issues.

This past weekend, I took part in a forum at the University of Chicago on universities and free expression. It was an enlightening and robust discussion among presidents and provosts from public and private institutions around the country. Ironically given the topic, the sessions were closed to all but the participants. I hope future conversations are open, because these are issues of vital public concern, and I’m sharing the following thoughts in an attempt to further what should be an open national discussion.


False narratives about today’s students

The common narrative about free speech issues that you so often read goes something like this: Today’s college students, overprotected and coddled by parents, poorly educated in high school and exposed to primarily left-leaning faculty, have become soft “snowflakes” who are easily offended by mere words and the slightest of insults, unable or unwilling to tolerate opinions that veer away from some politically correct orthodoxy, and unable to engage in hard-hitting debate.

This is false in so many ways, and is even insulting when you consider the reality of students’ experiences today.

In truth, while there is significant cause for concern about the level of anxiety experienced by students today, they are, on average, probably the least coddled generation of students ever. For example, at the University of Washington, 34 percent of our students are the first in their families to attend college and about a third of our in-state students are Pell-eligible, which in general means they come from families making less than $30,000 a year. College students today are also more diverse than at any other time in the past.

By contrast, college used to be something for mainly upper class white men, with coeducation by gender or class not becoming common until the late ’60s or early ’70s. Universities’ curricula and even buildings were designed for them. I lived at home when I attended the University of Miami, so my first college living experience was when I attended Yale for graduate school. My hall featured a small bedroom attached to each larger bedroom suite with a fireplace and window seat. Those small rooms had been built for the valets that many students brought to college with them. Talk about coddled! And indeed, students of that generation rarely had their tolerance or opinions tested by difference, because their life was almost entirely lived out within a homogeneous environment of eating clubs, secret societies and fraternities — the original “safe spaces” where students did not need to deal with true socioeconomic diversity, and with that, diversity more generally.

Moreover, for today’s college student the pressure to succeed is great because the cost of failure — perceived and actual — is much higher. “Gentlemen’s Cs“ from a “good“ school no longer lead to a high paying job in the financial sector.

There is, no doubt, some orthodoxy of perspectives when it comes to social mores, and it is no longer acceptable for students to openly speak in a manner that is frankly sexist, racist or homophobic. In more recent years this orthodoxy has also unfortunately spilled over to target conservative political views more generally, which is something we must work harder to address. But far from being an “echo chamber,” college is often the most diverse place — racially, politically, economically — many students have or will ever encounter. They routinely navigate a world of differences that was uncommon, if not unheard of, for college students of yore.


Debate, discussion & disruption

At the conference in Chicago we all agreed that universities are by their very nature places for discussion and debate of controversial issues. These debates are absolutely critical to the educational experience and in developing citizens prepared to engage with democracy. We want our students to be able to analyze an argument and to be prepared to make their own. Critical analysis and the ability to think for oneself are and should be hallmarks of a college education.

The purpose of debate and analysis is to generate light, not merely heat. Many, many individuals with a wide range of viewpoints come to our campuses and do just that. And even more often, students are exposed to multiple, divergent viewpoints on topics of current and timeless interest in class discussions, in books and articles, on class-related chat rooms and message boards, and in coffee shops and residence halls. Such passionate, reasoned debates where the goal is to win on the force of ideas, not by suppressing or drowning out opponents — when there even are opponents (not everything has to be an argument!) — commonly occur.

On our campus, we’ve had these debates on topics as far-ranging as whether or when divestment is an appropriate or effective strategy to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, on the role of animals in research, on policing more generally and on campus, on whether or not I should declare us a sanctuary campus, about the dangers (or not) of GMOs, on what are the best strategies for diversifying our campus, and on the role of affirmative action (which is not allowed by Washington law for admission of students or hiring of faculty and staff). I applaud these discussions and all who organize them. They are vital to a vibrant university and a healthy democracy and they should be encouraged.

The polarization of recent years has made such debates more difficult on topics that have become politicized. But this is not a problem unique to college students. We have to look long and hard to find good examples of tough, incisive yet civil discourse across differences on such topics. It’s certainly not something we often see on TV, in social media or in the national political arena.

Given the broader social and political climate, it should come as no surprise then that students and members of our community can falter when they try to have healthy debates, whether inside or outside the classroom. On our own campuses, I’ve found that the best of those discussions must often be facilitated and mediated, as is generally the case in our Race & Equity dialogues. Engagement in honest, direct dialogue across important differences is rare indeed, but it’s simply not fair to blame this generation of youth for the fact it seldom happens. Additionally, something often missed whenever there’s coverage of a “speech shouted down on campus” is that those doing the shouting are very often not students, faculty or staff, but organized groups from outside the academy.


Compassion and confusion

Today’s college students, like those of generations before them, have their own signature style borne of their unique experiences. They have grown up with a much greater appreciation for the real injury that sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia and other forms of bigotry can inflict on others. They were taught, at home and in school, to not tolerate bullies and to report them to authorities. Colleges like ours have student conduct codes that explicitly prohibit abuse of others, including harassment, bullying and discrimination. So it is confusing to many students that speakers can come to campus and engage in behaviors that students themselves would be disciplined for. And, beyond the confusion, they recognize that some individuals on the college tour circuit do act like bullies, at times going so far as to personally attack individual students in the audience. Standing up to them, even to the point of shutting down debate, seems like the right and compassionate thing to do for many students, particularly when these speakers come to campuses and communities, where students not only study and work, but also live.

I strongly disagree with the intentional shutting down of debate — there is a critical reason for including the right to free speech and expression in the very first amendment to our Constitution. I do not question its primacy. But let us not perpetuate the notion that some of these speakers have something to teach us or our students and that their talks constitute learning moments. The rancorous approach that is a signature of many of these speakers, and usually their content as well, is clearly intended to provoke a reaction, not produce understanding — they seek to produce heat, not light.

I disagree strongly with some who implied during the conference that this “anything goes” (short of violence) type of free speech is necessary in order to fulfill our academic mission of teaching our students how to engage in critical analysis and think for themselves. It should be abundantly clear that in recent years we have seen some speakers come to campuses not seeking to discuss difficult topics but instead seeking to create a spectacle to advance their fame and agenda — whether that is selling books or peddling a hateful ideology. They are using colleges as their stages and setting us up as their foils. Indeed, being blocked from speaking is often seen by them as a victory in their efforts to portray themselves as free speech martyrs. This, of course, is a phony honor since many of their followers try to silence others through doxing and other intimidation, with rarely a word of condemnation from the supposed heroes of free expression.


Free speech and democracy

So why do we allow those who intentionally seek to generate heat, not light, to speak at a university? Their messages often go against the very values of our institutions, and besides, what they have to say is readily available online.

If it is a public university, the answer starts with the First Amendment and subsequent laws and court rulings. Collectively they establish that public institutions — such as the UW — cannot discriminate based on the viewpoints expressed, no matter how repugnant. We can establish reasonable time, manner and place restrictions and act to protect public safety, but by law we cannot do so based on the viewpoint of a speaker.

But, for me, it also goes beyond the legal obligation. Speech by people we strenuously disagree with, and that is in fact hateful and repugnant, is the price we pay for democracy and to ensure our own freedom of speech. When we give the government the power to become the arbiter of what views are acceptable, then we have taken a step toward authoritarianism. There is no agreed upon definition of what speech is hateful; I’m reminded of the young man who stood on Red Square with a sign saying “Abortion Is a Hate Crime.” And, indeed, as we’ve seen in recent weeks, some believe that the simple act of kneeling while the national anthem is played is a sign of disrespect for our country and should be banned.

My position also comes from a personal understanding of the lengths that some will go to suppress speech they disagree with, especially when it challenges the status quo. If a self-appointed group is able to use intimidation or violence to decide what speech is acceptable — no matter if they are well-intentioned or even if we share their opinions — then we’ve taken a step toward a society where “might makes right.”


Ideas for moving forward

So how do we go forward? I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but since I am an educator it might not be surprising that the first thing I’d suggest is more education.

There has been great emphasis placed on the STEM disciplines, and given their importance to our modern, technological economy, rightfully so. But there has been too little emphasis placed on civic education. That leaves students — and far, far too many in our society — unable to answer basic questions like, “What institutions must follow the First Amendment?” and “Why does it protect hate speech?” — let alone to have the historical understanding of past times when free speech was cast aside to silence everyone from protesters against World War I to marchers for civil rights. STEM education is vital for a healthy economy. Comprehensive civics education is vital for a healthy democracy. Our students need to understand their rights are worth protecting — and to recognize the difference between speakers encouraging true discourse and those seeking self-promotion. Related to this, Student Life has prepared a resource guide for faculty on dealing with contemporary issues in the classroom.

Secondly, when there is a controversial speaker, we must find ways to add light to the discussion, or at the very least not contribute to the heat. Shutting down speakers elevates their message and frees them from having their ideas scrutinized. And frankly, violence and mayhem only strengthen authoritarian movements. There are many, many ways to stand in opposition to a person you disagree with. As educators, we have a role in encouraging students to do so in such a way that rights are respected.

Finally, I ask all of you to consider what it means to be a member of the UW community. We enrolled or hired each of you based on a belief that you have something to contribute. Respect that in yourselves and in the other members of our community. We will not always agree — believe me — but we must all take responsibility for engaging with each other respectfully, for truly listening to each other and for keeping our minds open to new ideas. That, after all, is why we’re all here: to learn with and from each other.

I have no doubt that this is a topic we’ll be discussing frequently, and I welcome that discussion here at the University of Washington and across the nation.