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New York Times Colleges grapple with where -- or whether -- to draw the line on free speech

It has happened across the country, at small private colleges and large public universities: An invited guest is heckled or shouted down or disinvited because of opposing political views.

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And the incident is followed by a competing chorus of accusations about the rights of free speech versus the need to feel safe and welcome.

It is something those in higher education have grappled with for decades. But after the 2016 presidential election and the increasing polarization of the country, the issue has taken on a new resonance.

Part of the problem, said David Axelrod, former chief strategist and senior adviser for President Barack Obama and director of the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, is that students often come to college having rarely — or never — interacted with someone with a different opinion or lifestyle.

There are “these virtual-reality silos — I mean, we can curate our news sources in such a way that our views are always affirmed, not always informed,” he told participants at the Higher Ed Leaders Forum last week hosted by The New York Times.

One of the most infamous examples of such unrest took place at Middlebury College in Vermont last year when students shouted down Charles Murray, a conservative author of “The Bell Curve,” who has been accused of scientific racism for linking socioeconomic status with race and intelligence.

The students also pulled fire alarms and began pushing and shoving him and his faculty interviewer, who suffered a concussion. The event made national headlines and was viewed by conservative commentators as emblematic of a nationwide problem: liberal students refusing to hear speech they disagreed with.

“It’s absurd that a scholar like Charles Murray would have trouble making a speech anywhere,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who also spoke at the forum. “I mean you hate his views, but so what? You need to deal with it, counter or ignore it or whatever needs to be done. That’s what a good academic experience should be about.”

It was a different experience four months later when Murray spoke at the University of Michigan, said Andrew D. Martin, dean of the university’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. The university formed an “engagement team” that included academics, student leaders and public safety officers in a dialogue with the organizers of the talk.

“We let students know that we were not only fully committed to the right of the speaker to speak, but the audience to hear and the right of those who wanted to express dissent to be able to do so in a way that didn’t preclude others’ rights,” Martin said, speaking on a forum panel.

There were protests, but “we have a protocol to deal with this,” he added. “It’s called a heckler’s warning.” The protesters were asked to allow the speaker to continue “and we reiterated some of the principles behind that.” After five minutes the students were once again asked to be quiet, or they would be removed by public safety officers. The demonstrators left, and the speech continued.

Many students do not understand that the First Amendment only guarantees that no government entity can violate a person’s right to free speech. So private universities, unlike public universities, which are considered state agents, are free to punish students for speech without violating the First Amendment. However, many private universities have free speech codes that guarantee their students freedom of speech.

“We’re not doing a terribly effective job educating our students about what the First Amendment means and what the implications are, not just for their lives on campus, but their lives in general,” Martin said.

One way to change that is to make sure students have a much firmer grounding in the country’s founding documents, especially the Bill of Rights. David Schultz, a professor of political science at Hamline University in St. Paul, offered, for the first time this year a freshman seminar called “Speech, Censorship, Toleration and Bigotry,”

“I explain to them the philosophical and political foundations about why we have free speech, because I don’t think students understand that,” he said.

In 2017, Gallup and the Knight Foundation in partnership with the American Council on Education, the Charles Koch Foundation and the Stanton Foundation, surveyed college students about their thoughts on free expression. Ninety percent said it was never acceptable to use violence to prevent someone from speaking. But 10 percent viewed it as acceptable sometimes.

But free speech is only part of the equation; campuses also have to contend with events that threaten students’ feelings of inclusiveness and even safety. That same poll found that 53 percent of students surveyed saw promoting an inclusive society that welcomes diverse groups as more important than protecting free speech. Nearly two-thirds of students also said they did not believe the Constitution should protect hate speech.

When Richard Spencer, a prominent white nationalist, spoke at the University of Florida in October, “different student groups lived in different realities,” said Joseph Glover, provost of the university. “Some of them experienced visceral fear. It was not a matter of whether or not he should have the right to speak. They were viscerally afraid of him because of his organization, what he stood for, his policies, his advocacies.”

What, he asked, do you do about that?

Christina Paxson, president of Brown University, acknowledged the difficulty of balancing those fears against free speech.

“You can’t tell people they can’t feel afraid,” she said. You can reassure them of their safety and try to make them comfortable, but “there’s no magic solution — it’s one of the realities of these types of events.”

It is also true that belief in free speech may mean everyone has a right to speak, but not that everyone has a right to be invited to speak. Axelrod, said, for example, that he would not invite Roseanne Barr, whose top-rated sitcom was recently canceled after a racist tweet, because “she has a long history of making comments like this that are offensive and incendiary, and that aren’t really the advancement of an idea. They are just purely the advancement of a prejudice.”

For Axelrod, the more informed and active students are, the more they understand the words of Van Jones, the news commentator who spoke at the institute.

“He said: ‘We owe it to you to keep you from physical harm, but we don’t owe it to you to keep you from ideas you find abhorrent. We want you to be strong not safe. Because the world is going to demand that you be strong.'”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

ALINA TUGEND © 2018 The New York Times

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