Students for Free Speech

Gathering draws students from numerous campuses who endorse a statement of principles about the value of open expression in higher education.

May 1, 2017
 
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The news is full of recent incidents in which students have blocked or attempted to block campus speakers. Students have shouted down or shut down appearances of controversial speakers at Middlebury College, Claremont McKenna College and the University of California, Los Angeles, among other campuses. While the students involved there are on the left, invitations have been rescinded for views favoring abortion rights (an invitation withdrawn at Saint Mary's College in Indiana), and invitations have been protested for speaker views seen as anti-Israel (as in a case at the City University of New York, in which officials are refusing to block an appearance).

In much of the public discussion of these incidents, students are portrayed as intolerant of views with which they disagree.

Over the weekend, 25 students from about 20 colleges around the country gathered at the University of Chicago to try to start a movement in which students would become leading defenders of free speech on campus -- including speech that they find offensive. The students issued a statement Sunday that they plan to urge other students to sign and to abide by.

"The Free Speech Movement began as an entirely student-led initiative," says the statement, referring to the University of California, Berkeley, movement of the 1960s. "However, free speech has been increasingly undermined by attempts of students and administrators alike to silence those with whom they disagree. We seek to reclaim that original tradition."

The statement goes on to say, "A central purpose of education is to teach students to challenge themselves and engage with opposing perspectives. Our ability to listen to, wrestle with and ultimately decide between contending viewpoints fosters mutual understanding as well as personal and societal growth. The active defense of free and open discourse is crucial for our society to continue to thrive as a democracy premised on the open debate of ideas." To that end, the statement stresses that speakers must be able to talk without "censorship or intimidation," with the latter a reference to incidents of speakers being shouted down.

There are no exceptions offered in the statement. Any speech that would be "constitutionally protected" should be protected. This would apply at private colleges, where First Amendment protections are not legally in place, but where authors of the statement say that the spirit of the First Amendment should prevail. And these principles should apply even when speakers or their points of view are to some on campus "objectionable and even deeply offensive." (The full statement may be found following this article.)

Individual students and student groups at some campuses have tried to make the case for free speech. At Harvard University, for example, a new student group is trying to invite the most controversial speakers possible to campus. But the effort started at Chicago is seeking to build a national movement, based on a philosophy of supporting free expression.

Matthew Foldi, the Chicago undergraduate who organized the event, said it came out of discussions with other students and administrators who were frustrated by so many events in which free speech seemed under attack in higher education. "We need a culture where all are free to communicate," he said.

Foldi stressed that there is nothing wrong with protesting speakers with whom one disagrees, as long as those protests don't prevent anyone from speaking or being heard. He said in fact that protest that doesn't disrupt speech is a vitally important part of free expression on campus.

Students who participated in this weekend's discussion came from Clemson, Michigan State, New York, Northwestern and Princeton Universities, among others. The hope is that the students will return to their home campuses, spread the word and reach out to friends at other campuses and do the same.

A model may be found at the faculty level, Foldi said, in the joint letter by Princeton University's Robert P. George and Harvard University's Cornel West (who differ politically) that many other scholars have signed, defending the importance of free expression in higher education. Students need to take a similar stand, Foldi said.

Foldi is politically active at Chicago in both Republican and pro-Israel groups. He stressed that the new student group is bipartisan and that the founders included Democrats and independents.

And Foldi said being committed to free speech on campus meant being willing to tolerate appearances by those with whom you disagree. He said that in his first year at Chicago, a pro-Palestinian activist spoke in his dormitory, and that this person was someone who "disgusted" him with support for violence against Israelis. Nonetheless, Foldi said, while he wishes he had handed out leaflets outside the event (he didn't learn of it until after the fact), he views the two acceptable options in such cases as nondisruptive protest or simply staying away.

The group that met at Chicago doesn't yet have a name, but following is its first statement.

The Statement

Support for free expression is a nonpartisan value that must be protected and promoted. We invite any and all interested individuals to sign this Statement of Principles affirming the importance of free expression on campuses across the country. Please share this with other members of your community.

Why We’re Here and Who We Are:

The Free Speech Movement began as an entirely student-led initiative. However, free speech has been increasingly undermined by attempts of students and administrators alike to silence those with whom they disagree. We seek to reclaim that original tradition with this student-created Statement of Principles.

We, the undersigned, stand united in our shared conviction that free expression is critical to our society, in spite of our differing backgrounds, perspectives and ideologies.

What We Believe:

A central purpose of education is to teach students to challenge themselves and engage with opposing perspectives. Our ability to listen to, wrestle with and ultimately decide between contending viewpoints fosters mutual understanding as well as personal and societal growth. The active defense of free and open discourse is crucial for our society to continue to thrive as a democracy premised on the open debate of ideas.

The only way to achieve this is by cultivating a culture where all are free to communicate without fear of censorship or intimidation. While some speech may be objectionable and even deeply offensive, constitutionally protected speech ought to be held and enforced as the standard and must not be infringed upon. As Justice Louis Brandeis observed exactly 90 years ago, “those who won our independence believed … that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies,” and that “the fitting remedy for evil counsels” is not disruption, violence or suppression, “but good ones.”

What You Can Do:

Our vision is to foster a nationwide community of students, faculty, staff, alumni and other friends who support free expression.

If you share our passion for free speech, viewpoint diversity and open discourse, please sign on to this Statement of Principles and encourage your community to do the same.

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