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If Universities Can’t Allow Freedom of Speech, Who Can? 

The “Free Speech Movement” began in the 1960s on the UC Berkeley campus. At that time, the campus became the hub of anti-establishment demonstrations. These demonstrations were all liberal and concerned with anti-racism, anti-war, and anti-establishment themes, but the crux of the issue was the students’ right to express their opinions openly.

Fast forward to 2017 when two right-wing, professional provocateurs (Milo Yiannopoulos and now Ann Coulter), invited to speak on the Berkeley campus by the Berkeley College Republicans, both had speeches canceled by the university because of concerns about property damage and student safety. No one doubts that the university has an obligation to protect the safety of its students. But they also have an obligation to protect free speech. “Academic Freedom” has been a concept that has applied to what has been said and what has been taught at universities for decades and was formulated most convincingly by Michael Polanyi, a Hungarian born scientist and philosopher who argued for freedom of both inquiry and expression from the point of view of the need for science to be free to consider all ideas. He was making his arguments against Nazi, Soviet and even British attempts by the state to control scientific inquiry. The idea of academic freedom quickly spread to all things taught at universities and was the basis for many professors standing up to McCarthyism in the United States.

UC Berkeley maintains that it has not turned its back on freedom of speech or academic freedom (in this case the freedom of students to hear whomever they want to have speak to them). Nevertheless, they have now canceled another speaker (other universities have also canceled both speakers in the past). So if the university wishes to preserve freedom of speech, but is unable to, who is to blame?

UC Berkeley is partly to blame. In order to guarantee free speech on its campus, the university must make accommodations, which allow any kind of speech which meets the requirements of student sponsorship, to take place. After the debacle with Milo Yiannopoulos and recent clashes in the streets of Berkeley, as well as incidents at other universities, it is incumbent upon the university to make arrangements that will allow such speech to happen with minimal risk to students.

But those who disrupt campus speakers and who impose their will by threatening or attacking other students are also to blame, as are those among the faculty who acquiesce in “shutting down” speech they find offensive or dangerous. It is a weak society that combats ideas by not allowing their expression. That is exactly what Polanyi fought against in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Scholars of free speech are generally in agreement that what makes speech dangerous is the restriction of views that oppose it. None argue that certain ideas are so toxic, except those that involve a direct threat to another person or group, that they can’t be heard. Such ideas become dangerous when their opponents have no opportunity to argue against them, when those who hear such ideas have no opportunity to hear alternatives to them.

Universities should be the places where ideas are debated. A group of protestors are intimidating our universities so that only those ideas and speakers who meet with their approval are allowed to speak. That is wrong, and UC Berkeley and other universities need to figure out how to combat such forces so that Free Speech returns to our campuses. I don’t agree with Ann Coulter on virtually anything— except her right to express her views at a public university.


Reader Comments (1)

Good post, Casey. In a society as complicated as that of 2017 America, there are bound to be unavoidable restrictions of certain freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. What troubles me is that some of our citizens will justify limiting our freedoms for profit, and because they believe themselves to be above the law. No one is above the law. We've got to hold to our ideals, or else this place will start to feel like a zombie apocalypse story without the zombies.

April 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRLampros

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