The Glaring Evidence That Free Speech Is Threatened on Campus

Mar 8, 2016

Photo credit: Brian Nguyen/Reuters

By Conor Friedersdorf

At a recent Intelligence Squared debate, an audience filled an auditorium at Yale University to weigh the timely proposition, “Free speech is threatened on campus.” The debate concerned higher education generally, not just the host institution. And at the event’s conclusion, having heard arguments on both sides of the question, 66 percent of the crowd agreed: free speech is threatened. That represented a 17-point shift from a poll taken as the event began. The evidence is that persuasive.One of the losers in the debate was Professor Shaun Harper of the University of Pennsylvania, who heads its Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education. He began by noting that “there has been a significant increase in the demand for our campus climate work” since last semester’s protests. In fact, he added, “this past December, we brought together 8,000 college presidents and other senior leaders who came to us for guidance on how to respond to racism on their campuses.”

With that background, I expected Professor Harper to have a broad sense of how common speech restrictions are at American colleges and universities. And I assumed that he would offer arguments for the position that they do not threaten free speech.I was wrong on both counts.

Late in the event, he declared, “I don’t want anyone’s speech to be suppressed in any setting.” The root of the disagreement was his belief that little speech is restricted.

And earlier in his remarks, Harper declared that while colleges may ask students to voluntarily limit their speech in various ways, like not wearing offensive costumes, “I invite our opponents to present us more than a handful of written, institutional policies––where it’s been put in writing that you can’t say certain things. You can’t wear certain costumes. Sure, students would be encouraged to do or not do something. But I, as a higher-education scholar who studied thousands of colleges and universities, have never seen a written institutional policy.”

That statement is baffling.

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One comment on “The Glaring Evidence That Free Speech Is Threatened on Campus”

  • Poor Professor Harper is facing a bad case of cognitive dissonance.

    On the one hand, he’s all for free speech. Anyone who isn’t is a fascist, so obviously he’s in favour of it. You can’t not be and hold your head up high in modern society.

    On the other hand, he wants students to not offend anyone, whether it be a bad-taste costume, using certain proscribed words (N- and C-), saying anything that might be construed as racist, sexist, homophobic, unAmerican, islamophobic etc. etc. Naturally, everyone has to be protected from these sentiments, so speech – while always free – has to be limited. Voluntarily. Without it being a policy. Or not a written down policy.

    I hope Professor Harper recovers soon.

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