I have spoken on the Senate floor recently on free speech
as it applies to the world of digital media. The principles of free speech are
timeless and are applicable to new forms of communication. Still, it is natural
that new questions will arise, and new mechanisms might be needed to apply
those principles across new modes of communication. What shouldn’t be in
question is the need for open dialogue and freedom of speech in academia. Otherwise,
what is the principle of “Academic Freedom” if it isn’t freedom of speech?
All of the progress that has made modern life possible
has been the result of individuals who have been able to think of things in new
ways, even if that challenged the old orthodoxy. A healthy and vibrant academic
environment is not afraid of this. Only stagnant, defensive and unconfident
regimes suppress speech.
Think about the recent protests in Russia and Belarus.
China’s restrictions on the internet and its suppression
of minorities show that it is threatened by contrary ways of thinking. Which
would you describe as an advanced, stable and dynamic society – North Korea or
South Korea? Obviously that describes South Korea well. It does not at all
describe that part of the Korean peninsula north of the 38th parallel.
So, what does it say about so many American academic
institutions that the notion of free thought and free speech has now become
controversial? What purpose do universities serve, if one of the purposes is
not to discuss controversial subjects? I like to define a university as a place
where controversy should run rampant.
We hear lots of rationales about why the current
generation of college students needs to be protected from hearing speech that
could be offensive, hateful or just plain wrong. Of course, I don’t support
hateful speech, but I do support freedom.
If you empower those in authority to limit “hate speech”,
whether they be college administrators or government officials, that power will
eventually be abused to limit dissenting views of all kinds. That’s where some
universities are right now.
Even in Iowa’s three public universities, we have seen
recent efforts to shut down mainstream center-right views. For instance, a Dean
at the University of Iowa sent an e-mail across a university platform
criticizing a Trump administration executive order. But when a student
challenged that position using the same medium, the student was threatened with
disciplinary action. The dean has since apologized for his initial handling of
the situation so I don’t raise it to pick on him. In fact, he has befriended me
in so many thoughtful ways. It just makes you wonder if it is part of a broader
cultural trend in academia.
Then there was an English professor at Iowa State
University who had to be reprimanded for banning her students from writing
papers expressing certain viewpoints, such as opposition to abortion or
same-sex marriage. The president of my alma mater, the University of Northern
Iowa, had to step in to reverse a decision by the student senate denying a pro-life
student organization status purely because of their political views.
In each case, the university administrations ultimately
resolved these incidents well, and properly so. I mention them not to criticize
those institutions, but because they seem to be examples of a broader trend on
campuses across the country of a knee jerk reaction to shutdown speech some
The best response to the expression of views you find
repugnant is speech that points out the error of that way of thinking. That’s
the University of Chicago’s policy, which has become the gold standard for free
speech advocates. The University of Chicago expressly prohibits “obstructing or
otherwise interfering with the freedom of others to express views they reject
or even loathe.”
If you are confident in the rightness of your views, and
you have an environment that allows free expression of those views, you need not
fear speech you find wrong. Of course, that assumes that human beings are all
gifted with the power of reason and can discern what is right. If that is not
the case; if people cannot be trusted to listen to different views and come to
the right conclusion,
then there is no basis for democracy and our system of
self-government is fundamentally flawed. You can shield students from hearing
challenging and uncomfortable views while in college, but not when they get out
in the real world. What if they didn’t go to college those four years?
Academic institutions that do not allow for students’ views
to be challenged, tested and refined through rigorous debate are doing their
students a great disservice. These students’ knowledge will be limited and
their views unsophisticated. Their ability to deal with different ways of
thinking, which they will inevitably encounter in their life, will be greatly
diminished. I feel sorry for students who graduate from colleges that cocoon them
Let me repeat, I have always thought of a university as a
place where controversy should run rampant. The notion that the voices students
hear must be curated for their own good is concerning not just because it has a
totalitarian ring, but because it is harming students in the long run.
If students are showing up on campus unable to cope
emotionally with hearing conflicting viewpoints, that is a problem of their
upbringing and education to that point. It is something colleges need to
confront head on for their students’ wellbeing. Further shielding students from
having their views challenged, then sending them out in the world thinking they
are prepared, is a recipe for failure.
Americans seem to be losing the ability to understand the
point of view of those with whom they disagree. That is an unrealistic
perspective for Americans to have. It’s a failure to teach about freedom.
Questioning of motives has replaced principled argument.
Shouting insults has displaced logical debate. Don’t you see this societal
trend increasingly reflected in the halls of Congress?
Those who have attended institutions of higher education
should have been exposed to the great thinkers of the past and present, be able
to argue points logically and understand the point of view of those they are
trying to persuade or refute.
College graduates should be models of civilized
discourse. Instead, they are too often the vanguard of the “closing of the
For the sake of their students, and for the benefit of
American society, I urge college administrators, trustees, alumni and all
Americans who value the free exchange of ideas to work toward reversing this
trend. Open debate may seem contentious at the time, but it is the only path
toward mutual understanding, which is so needed right now in American society.