Prepared Floor Remarks by U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa
Raises Concerns about Free Speech on College Campuses
Tuesday, March 9, 2021

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 find disagreeable.
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 from controversy.
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 American mind”.

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.