After school year of protests, debate ensues

Recent events on campus make free speech a part of a national discussion.

Nick Wicker

As controversial discussions on race and representation exploded on campuses nationwide, students and administrators have begun reconsidering what constitutes free speech in the modern arena of higher education.
 
 
Protests at Yale University and the University of Missouri last fall are just some of the most visible examples of those discussions. At the University of Minnesota, hate speech accusations have sparked student and faculty leaders to take a definitive stance on free speech.
 
 
University police arrested three protesters at Mondale Hall last November for disrupting a lecture, titled “Protecting Civilians: Moral Challenges of Asymmetric Warfare,” given by New York University’s pro-Israel law professor Moshe Halbertal. The event mounted tension between campus groups Students Supporting Israel and Students for Justice in Palestine. 
 
 
In February, Students for a Conservative Voice hosted provocative speakers Milo Yiannopoulos and Christina Hoff Sommers at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, where the pair called for an end to modern feminism. Students for a Democratic Society protested, calling the event a form of hate speech.
 
 
Since then, faculty and student leaders at the University have been embroiled in controversies over what forms of speech should be protected, endorsed and condoned and how to react to offensive remarks.
 
 
The University Senate’s Faculty Consultative Committee voted in March in favor of free speech protections that include offensive speech, an action that garnered criticism from graduate student groups. And last month, the Minnesota Student Association launched its “Not Just Words” campaign, which they hope will address concerns over microaggressions — subtle yet offensive remarks.
 
 
The Minnesota Daily collected vignettes from student leaders, faculty and administrators as they chime in with their thoughts on the role of free speech at a public university.
 
 
Those will be available in the coming weeks as part of a special online project.
 
 
The following is a first look at the series, written by Jane Kirtley, director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law and a University professor in both of those fields:
 
 
In Riga, Latvia, at the intersection of a major thoroughfare whose name translates as Freedom Boulevard and another road named Pillory Street, stands the former KGB headquarters known as the Corner House. Today it is a museum, but during the years of Soviet occupation, it was a place of arrest, detention and execution of political dissidents. In those days, citizens were encouraged to denounce neighbors and co-workers who expressed anti-Soviet ideas by depositing anonymous “complaints and petitions” in a mailbox conveniently located at the front door.
 
 
I live right around the block from the Corner House. Since February 2016, I have been a Fulbright scholar teaching on the law faculty at the University of Latvia. Most of my students come from countries where, during the years of Soviet domination, dissenting speech was punished by the government. In Hungary and Russia, restrictions on expression and freedom of the press are once again the norm. My students are all too aware that these rights are both precious and fragile and cannot be taken for granted.
 
 
And they are aghast to learn that universities in the United States, a country they regard as a bastion of liberty, have become places where some seek to suppress ideas characterized as hateful or uncivil on the ground that they will cause distress or hurt feelings, even when the topics involve contemporary issues of profound public importance.
 
 
The reality is that anywhere controversial ideas are freely exchanged, someone will be offended. Of course, individuals have a right to their feelings. But that right does not extend to suppressing those views that offend them. The appropriate response to offensive speech is counter-speech, such as panels, lectures, social media campaigns, letters to the editor and peaceful protests.
 
 
But speech that shuts down the rights of others to express offensive ideas — sometimes called the heckler’s veto — is itself an attack on freedom of speech. Public land-grant universities like the University of Minnesota are bound by the First Amendment and could not exist without it. Universities should be a place where no idea is too controversial to be aired. To ask universities to denounce or retaliate against those who express unpopular ideas is fundamentally no different than the government censorship that landed all those dissidents in the Corner House in Riga. As the United States Supreme Court has observed, “It is a central tenet of the First Amendment that the government must remain neutral in the marketplace of ideas.” Anything else is censorship.
 
 
What is the role of free speech at a college campus? It is to open minds and to challenge prejudices, not by silencing unpopular views but by exposing them to the sunshine of public debate and discussion. My students in Latvia understand that. I hope my students at the University of Minnesota do, too.