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Northwestern University

What Does "Free Speech" Mean on a College Campus?

Members of the Weinberg College community share their perspectives

Ethan Busby is a graduate student in political science.

My research focuses on different kinds of extremism based on ideological, social or racial divisions and how to inhibit it. This is a very difficult topic for college campuses to wrestle with, as it raises questions over different but important values. The first is the sense of openness, diversity and toleration that the First Amendment promotes, to which most of us have a strong attachment. The second is the sense that some views are normatively bad — and deciding which ones are bad is never easy. Any time you draw a line, immediately there are questions and you have to make lots of exceptions. If a group challenges democracy, should you make an exception and take action against that group?

It’s not always clear which standards to use to evaluate if someone or something is unacceptable. If there’s a threat of violent conflict, there could be reasons to stop the event. But otherwise, how much of my decision about what’s acceptable is mostly about my views versus objective standards of free speech? 

Being able to wrestle with this is more important than having one clear rule. The boundary between being challenged and marginalized is a hard one to draw. I believe some ideas can cause psychological distress, but pretending that we’re only going to hear viewpoints that we agree with is a fantasy. Neither side of the political spectrum has a corner on intolerance — they’re just intolerant about different things. On any campus, we don’t need to ask, “Are we a tolerant student body?” Rather, what we should be asking is, “In what way can we struggle with intolerance?” Dealing with this is inescapable.

Laura Beth Nielsen is a sociology professor and director of the Center for Legal Studies.

In the United States, we value free speech and have this idea that “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.” But perhaps it’s too dismissive to characterize the harms of certain types of speech as nothing more than an emotional scratch.

Medical and social sciences have shown that some speech can have serious consequences — such as high blood pressure, depression and coping actions such as smoking — that can prevent a person from being a full, equal participant in education. We’re not just talking about people being touchy, but about inequalities that have befuddled us as a country for a long time. Why do African Americans have shorter lifespans? Maybe because they have increased stress. As those connections get made and our society becomes more diverse, we may decide that words can actually hurt in significant ways.

How will we deal with this on campuses? Colleges and universities promote free speech and academic freedom even though the law does allow for criminalization of speech intended to intimidate or promote physical harm. But there’s a lot more we can do to help students through these conflicts. Discussions about political divisions and policy issues — the kinds of things we should be talking about on campuses — require excellent leadership and opportunities for people to speak and be heard.

We want our students to feel safe to express their ideas on campus, and we want a diversity of opinions to be represented. We want students to enjoy their First Amendment right to protest, but we can’t have people shutting down classrooms because they’re offended. Most students are new to these disagreements and conversations. We have to teach them.

Joseph Lamps ’19 is a Weinberg College philosophy major.

Free speech on a college campus means that any opinion can be voiced and evaluated on its own merits. The most important function of free speech is to protect the voices of those with unpopular opinions, or those with opinions disliked by people with power. This applies on the level of the campus, where no opinion should be prohibited or silenced, and on the level of national and state governments, which need to be prevented from attempting to silence any opinions. Free speech is tied closely to the right to protest peacefully, because protest is a form of expression. An environment of ideological diversity in which facts are valued above ideology bolsters free speech. 

Alvin B. Tillery, Jr. is the director of the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy and an associate professor of political science.

I do think that the First Amendment freedoms of speech and expression are sacrosanct. I agree with Justice Harlan Fiske Stone that the First Amendment is one of the foundational freedoms that make executing other freedoms possible. I think also that the tenure system and the ability to pursue lines of research without worrying about the bottom line of an institution are very important. Without those protections, there’s no academic freedom or pursuit of real science. They are the cornerstone of pursuing truth, and that’s what universities are supposed to be about.

Problems arise when speakers on campus advocate for ideas based on emotion rather than scholarship and research. You could say, “It’s discomfiting, and the university is supposed to discomfit young minds when they arrive.” The important thing is that those young minds encounter discourse that is driven by standards of academic research. You can’t just state something like “the earth is flat” or “climate change isn’t real” or any other position without defending it.

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