Minnesota Faculty Panel Affirms On-Campus Free Speech

March 14, 2016

The University of Minnesota’s top faculty committee voted 7 to 2 last week to provisionally support a statement backing free speech on campus as the institution’s “paramount value,” according to The Washington Post. Dale Carpenter, Distinguished University Teaching Professor and Earl R. Larson Professor of Civil Rights & Civil Liberties Law at the University of Minnesota Law School, wrote in a guest blog post that the resolution adopted by the Faculty Consultative Committee (of which he is a part), has requested input on the statement from Minnesota’s president, provost, Student Senate and other groups, but was moved to affirm free speech rights in light of recent on-campus incidents.

In November, pro-Palestinian protesters -- three of whom were arrested -- repeatedly disrupted a speech by Moshe Halbertal, a law professor from Hebrew University in Jerusalem. And last academic year, the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action investigated and questioned the judgment of professors involved in a panel on free speech who promoted it using a Charlie Hebdo cover featuring Muhammad (the inquiry was prompted by student, faculty and external complaints).

The committee’s statement reads, in part, “Ideas are the lifeblood of a free society and universities are its beating heart. If freedom of speech is undermined on a university campus, it is not safe anywhere. The University of Minnesota resolves that the freedom of speech is, and will always be, safe at this institution.” The statement says that protecting free speech means embracing the following principles:

  1. A public university must be absolutely committed to protecting free speech, both for constitutional and academic reasons.
  2. Free speech includes protection for speech that some find offensive, uncivil or even hateful.
  3. Free speech cannot be regulated on the ground that some speakers are thought to have more power or more access to the mediums of speech than others.
  4. Even when protecting free speech conflicts with other important university values, free speech must be paramount.
A university spokesperson noted via email Monday that in a speech earlier this month, President Eric Kaler said that "the University of Minnesota promotes a climate of open, thoughtful and civil debate among our campus community. We encourage all to speak with respect and understanding of others, but we should not forbid speech that shocks, hurts or angers. Professor Carpenter's notion that, 'The best response to offensive ideas is to counter them with better ideas,' is spot on. If there is any space in society for that, it’s the university."
The spokesman also said that the committee's resolution is "the beginning of a dialogue in [the committee] with an objective of reaching a consensus that effects the input of a broad cross section of campus."
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