Guest Blog: Highlighting Complexities of Free Speech

free-speechIn a recent letter on free speech, President Wiewel commented:

“We work hard to make PSU a safe, inclusive and welcoming campus. That can be a challenge at a time when we as a nation are experiencing inflammatory political rhetoric and racial and ethnic unrest.”

President Wiewel reminds all of us that our campus is a place where individuals can express themselves freely and disagree, but, “there is no place on our campus for harassment of individuals or discrimination of any kind.”

We are living in a society with an ever-increasing desire for individuals and groups to express their views. For many of us, it can be challenging not to impose our own individual values on the shared obligation to uphold the rights of all.

At a retreat this summer, David Reese, our University General Counsel, led the President’s Executive Committee through a case study on free speech. I learned that circumstances I felt passionate to act on and prevent were protected.

I asked David to write a guest blog about free speech in order for us to better understand  where the boundaries and our own values can be in conflict with recognizing the rights of others.

 Members of the Westboro Baptist Church picket military funerals with signs such as “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.”  Members of the American Nazi Party march in Skokie, Illinois, wearing Nazi uniforms and swastika armbands, in a deliberate attempt to impact the village’s significant population of concentration camp survivors.  A man wears a jacket saying “Fuck the Draft” in a courtroom in 1968. 

In each of these cases, the Supreme Court supported the rights of individuals to speak free from government interference or sanction, no matter how offensive, provocative, disruptive or hateful.  There are few—and very narrow—categories of speech that are unprotected by the First Amendment, such as incitements to imminent violence or direct threats to the safety of others, that can be stopped or sanctioned simply because of the content of the speech.   It is against this legal backdrop that a governmental entity such as PSU must approach questions of free speech and assembly. 

This Fall term finds us in a time of great coarseness in our national debate.  Basic norms of conduct and civility seem to have all but disappeared.  The internet allows easy dissemination of almost any vitriol with relatively little accountability.  We see this on our campus just as we see it across the country.   At the same time, in an increasingly diverse and multicultural nation and campus, we are called upon to assure basic safety and security for students in an environment that fosters learning.  We see this in demands for greater sensitivity to implicit bias and messages, for safe spaces and trigger warnings.  Caught in the middle is an institution and its faculty, students and staff, balancing the demands of free speech with the need to provide a safe and supportive environment for all students.

It’s clear that we generally cannot stop speech or sanction speakers merely because of what they say—and we should not allow or condone others to do so through a “heckler’s veto.”  Similarly, cherished traditions of academic freedom, of challenging our own beliefs and of engaging in robust debate must be protected. Yet, it’s harder to know what to do when such speech is contrary to institutional values or harms members of our community.  

First, just because we cannot generally quash speech does not require we be silent.  The institution has as much a right as any other speaker to express and reinforce its values and to offer contrary views.  Individuals may do the same: make counterarguments, organize, oppose, critique, educate.  Sometimes, the best answer is to ignore.  Second, freedom of speech is not a license to act contrary to the University’s student or employee conduct codes or policies, to disrupt a classroom or University business, or to harass or abuse others with impunity.  Individuals can be held accountable for the consequences of their actions.  In all cases, what is critically important is that we provide a supportive environment for those impacted by offensive speech.  We should not be or seem indifferent to those who feel the brunt of hostile speech.  Concerns about racial, ethnic or gender-based harassment or discrimination must be reported and investigated. Support services, such as counseling and resource centers, should be provided.   

In our nation’s history, it has often been the right that has sought to suppress speech.   The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1789 prohibited public opposition to the government, based largely on fear of foreigners and French influence. In 1918, Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs was imprisoned for opposition to World War I.  Today, it is often the speech of the far (or alt) right that we are urged to curtail.  But the danger to basic freedoms is the same.  Once the government (or the university) decides whose speech and which speech is worthy or not of protection, we’ve all lost some degree of our right to speak.  We need to resist our instinct to quash speech.  Instead, we should focus on promoting our values and supporting our students in their efforts to thrive at PSU and to move to the next phase of their lives having been challenged and feeling better equipped to succeed in the world.

Regrettably, there will be far too many occasions that test our resolve on freedom of speech, especially when they run counter to our own views and create tensions.  We should make sure that our values are known and express them within the rights accorded to us.

Please share your thoughts on free speech at the University.

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