Column: Fearless and robust speech on university campuses

Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist and New College of Florida trustee, walks through protesters on his way out of a bill-signing event featuring Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in Sarasota, Fla., on May 15. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Thomas Simonetti

Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist and New College of Florida trustee, walks through protesters on his way out of a bill-signing event featuring Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in Sarasota, Fla., on May 15. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Thomas Simonetti The Washington Post — Thomas Simonetti

Narain Batra. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Narain Batra. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

By NARAIN BATRA

For the Valley News

Published: 06-12-2023 10:11 AM

University campuses have always been a place for resistance against oppression and a battleground for our freedom of expression since the early days of the republic. During the 1960s socially conscious students at the University of California, Berkeley, Kent State University, Jackson State University and other campuses played a prominent role in the Civil Rights movement and the anti-Vietnam protests, which led to the law enforcement heavy-handedness resulting in fatalities in some cases.

Today both public and private universities are struggling with how to preserve and encourage freedom of thought and expression in the face of state political interference and cancel culture.

A case in point is The “Stop Wrongs Against Our Kids and Employees” Act or the Stop Woke Act, spearheaded by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, which went to into effect on July 1, 2022. The act puts restrictions on discussions about civil rights, oppression and systemic racism, and critical race theory in higher education classrooms.

The act led to legal challenges and Tallahassee U.S. District Judge Mark Walker issued a preliminary injunction blocking the enforcement of the Act in higher education. Judge Walker wrote, “The First Amendment does not permit the State of Florida to muzzle its university professors, impose its own orthodoxy of viewpoints, and cast us all into the dark.” Rather “than combat ‘woke’ ideas with countervailing views in the ‘marketplace of ideas,’ the state has chosen to eliminate one side of the debate,” “This is positively dystopian,” he continued, before apparently citing a quotation from George Orwell. “It should go without saying that if liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

Continuing his critique of Gov. DeSantis’ state-sanctioned speech on public university campuses, Judge Walker said, “Our professors are critical to a healthy democracy, and the State of Florida’s decision to choose which viewpoints are worthy of illumination and which must remain in the shadows has implications for us all. If our ‘priests of democracy’ are not allowed to shed light on challenging ideas, then democracy will die in darkness.”

In contrast to DeSantis’ assault on academic freedom, several states, including Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, and Wisconsin have passed laws that aim to ensure that universities do not impede the expression of diverse viewpoints and promote an open exchange of ideas on campus. It’s important to note, however, that while these states have implemented legislation to address campus free speech concerns, the specific provisions and their implications can vary. The intent behind these laws is generally to safeguard freedom of expression while fostering an environment that encourages open dialogue and the exchange of diverse perspectives on college campuses.

But the problem of campus free speech is much more serious than strongmen like Gov. DeSantis’ paranoia about what should not be taught in classrooms.

According to key findings of the 2022-2023 College Free Speech Rankings report by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), “Alarming proportions of students self-censor, report worry or discomfort about expressing their ideas in a variety of contexts, find controversial ideas hard to discuss, show intolerance for controversial speakers, find their administrations unclear or worse regarding support for free speech, and even report that disruption of events or violence are, to some degree, acceptable tactics for shutting down the speech of others.”

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The survey took into account several factors including “Comfort Expressing Ideas,” “Tolerance for Liberal Speakers,” “Tolerance for Conservative Speakers,” “Disruptive Conduct,” “Administrative Support,” and “Openness” (abortion, freedom of speech, gun control, or racial inequality).

Based on these factors, the University of Chicago ranks No. 1, “Good” with a score of 77.92, while nearer at home, Dartmouth College ranks 83, “Average” with a score of 48.99.

In an instructive and inspiring recent article in the Boston Globe, two Dartmouth presidents — the incoming Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist and public intellectual with a large social media presence taking the top spot at the Ivy League college this summer, and Phil Hanlon, the outgoing president and a prominent American mathematician and computer scientist, talk about the danger of being silent on the campus.

Beilock and Hanlon write, “But it isn’t what people are saying on campus that’s the problem.

“Rather it is self-censorship, what is being left unsaid, that is the true issue. ... It is our own unwillingness to speak that has eroded our ability to seek deeper truth through the interchange of ideas — in academia and beyond. The fear of speaking up is driving discourse down. What speech will be left to save if no one is talking?” We must have the courage to be wrong, they say, and university campuses must move from “safe spaces” to “brave spaces.”

To address concerns surrounding campus free speech censorship, Beilock and Hanlon urge that universities should prioritize the development of critical thinking skills among their students.

By teaching students how to evaluate and critique different perspectives, universities can empower individuals to engage in respectful debates and form well-informed opinions. Intellectual diversity should be actively promoted, ensuring that a wide range of viewpoints are represented and considered within academic settings. This includes inviting speakers from diverse backgrounds and ideologies, challenging students to grapple with contrasting opinions, and encouraging the exploration of uncomfortable or controversial subjects.

But the challenge is whether university administrators and professors can help and encourage students to free themselves from the fear of freedom, the fear of free speech, on campus.

Narain Batra has taught Freedom of Speech and Media courses for more than three decades. He is affiliated with the diplomacy and international program at the Norwich University Graduate College. He publishes the Freedom Public Square newsletter and podcast.