Open Mike: free expression on campus

October 28, 2016

Free Expression on Campus: Rights and Some Responsibilities

Over the past year, controversies involving free expression have cropped up on campuses throughout the United States.  Speakers have been disinvited at several universities as a result of objections to their views.  At other universities, speakers arrived on campus only to be shouted down by their audiences.  A student was disciplined at one college for making a joke about feminism; at another a similar fate met students who criticized the university’s affirmative action program.  And at many universities, students demanded administrative sanctions against other students for their expressions of political views.

The University of Oregon has a proud history as a leader in the protection of free expression.  In 1963, the university created a free speech platform outside the EMU. A few years later, during the height of Vietnam War protests, the university created new procedures that recognized the rights of students to protest and drafted policies that took a lenient approach to non-violent demonstrations. In 1986, the free speech zone was expanded to the plaza outside our student union.  Wayne Morse – our former law professor, dean and U.S. senator – was throughout his career an outspoken advocate for unpopular political positions. 

Today members of our community still use demonstrations to drive attention to their causes, including in just the past year marches organized by the Black Student Task Force, the DivestUO movement and our own classified workers.  Like other UO presidents, I have sometimes been mentioned less than lovingly during these protests.  But like the majority of my predecessors, I am also deeply committed to the principle of free expression, both as embodied in the First Amendment and in the institution’s tradition of academic freedom.

Let me ground this conversation in the unequivocal statement that the UO embraces free expression as one of its core principles. It is outlined in the policy on Freedom of Inquiry and Free Speech passed by the University Senate in 2010 and signed by President Richard Lariviere. The policy states:

“Free inquiry and free speech are the cornerstones of an academic institution to the creation and transfer of knowledge.  Expression of diverse points of view is of the highest importance, not solely for those who present and defend some view but for those who would hear, disagree, and pass judgment on those views.  The belief that an opinion is pernicious, false, and in any other way despicable, detestable, offensive or ‘just wrong’ cannot be grounds for its suppression.” 

My own views on free expression are entirely consistent with this strong statement of principle.  As the inscription at the EMU Free Speech Plaza states, “[e]very new opinion, at its starting, is precisely a minority of one.”  Today’s unpopular sentiment or theory may become tomorrow’s orthodoxy. Perhaps even more important, unpopular views, even those that never catch on, cause us to question our commonly held presuppositions and engage in critical thinking, which is at the core of what we teach at a great university.

Of course, free speech is not and never has been an absolute right. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said it best when stating that the law does not sanction someone “falsely shouting ‘fire’ in a theater.” Courts have determined that it is appropriate and necessary for government to define the time, place and manner in which speech may coexist with the functions of government. In a university setting, we create restrictions that protect the safety of our community, the rights of our students to obtain an education, and the ability of our faculty, staff and administrators to do their jobs effectively.

Last year, a group of students representing Divest UO occupied the waiting room of Johnson Hall and attempted to plant a sign in front of the main door for several months.  They were respectful, interesting and fun to engage.  To be honest, I sort of liked having them there, even though they refused my offers of food.  On the other hand, they disrupted business at Johnson Hall.  When we looked for policies pertaining to the sit-in, we found that we had little more than vague rules prohibiting disruption and allowing for scheduling the use of facilities.

The absence of appropriate and well-understood rules for the use of campus spaces for the free exchange of ideas makes us all vulnerable.  We don’t have a set of consistent policies and rules that are clear to students, faculty, staff or other entities who may wish to appropriately protest.  More importantly, the absence of clearly articulated policies means that there is an unacceptable risk of arbitrariness and ad hoc rulemaking that in itself is a threat to the UO’s foundational free speech principles. While I liked the students sitting in the foyer, what if they had been hateful people advocating for policies we find reprehensible?  Restrictions on speech—even those allowed by law—must be content neutral. 

To deal with this problem, I have asked our Office of General Counsel to draw up a proposal that sets forth a clear set of guidelines to govern the time, place and manner of expressive activity on campus.  They are in the process of getting feedback from stakeholders across campus and plan to take that proposal to the Policy Advisory Committee in the next few weeks. It is my hope that this process of circulating a proposal will allow us to craft the best policy possible, one that reflects the values of the community and serves the legitimate needs of the university.  I view it as the beginning of a campus dialog that will involve all constituents of our university including our students, classified workers, administrators, faculty and University Senate.  Because of the vulnerability I described in the previous paragraph, if for some reason we are unable to come to a consensus in four months, then I will enact a temporary policy until that consensus is achieved.

The final topic that I would like to cover is how we treat each other.  At our September convocation I spoke to more than 3,000 incoming members of the Class of 2020.  I told them that sometimes professors or classmates might say things that angered or even offended them.  But the antidote to speech that one doesn’t like is not to shut down that speech.  That is what totalitarian governments do. Instead—to paraphrase Supreme Court Justices Louis D. Brandeis — the antidote to speech we don’t like is MORE SPEECH.  I am delighted that we have not experienced the type of intolerant behavior that has taken place at many other universities in the 15 months since I assumed the presidency of the University of Oregon.

The fact that we have the right to say what it is on our mind, of course, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t think about the effects of our words on others.  Racist or sexist speech, hate speech, is not welcome on this campus.  Students, faculty and staff must all remember that we are a family—a family of Ducks.  That means something.  We should not harm members of our community by making them feel bad or unwelcome.  As a community of scholars, we can debate ideas and theories without insulting each other or resorting to name-calling. Think about how your speech affects the people who hear it.  And, if you say something, even inadvertently, that does create offense, consider apologizing or engaging that person in a discussion. That’s what people in a family do. That’s also how we learn from each other – through discussion.

This message— that there is nothing inconsistent between the notions of protecting free speech and being careful that our speech doesn’t harm members of our community—is one that we should all put into practice.  Not because the university’s administration will step in to squelch the speech with disciplinary proceedings.  We won’t do that unless it rises to the level of pervasive harassment that deprives members of our community of their rights to teach or learn.  We should consider the effect of our speech on others because we are a community of scholars. 

So let’s argue with each other robustly over ideas and policies.  Let’s protest against oppression; let’s argue about politics; let’s even debate about questionable decisions emanating from Johnson Hall.  But let’s do so respectfully, assuming that each of us just wants to do the right thing.  And, let’s also keep open the possibility that all of this speech might convince us to change our minds.  That is the essence of rational discourse; it is why our university was created and why we chose to be here.

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