A Closer Look: Defending the liberal approach to campus speech

Alex Stevens, Political Columnist

Last week, a letter to the editor titled “The price of free speech” was published in The Oakland Post.  The letter described an encounter the author had on Oakland University’s campus with unpopular and ugly speech. The event was also covered by The Oakland Post in an article by Grace Turner.

It appears that the purpose of the letter was to demonstrate that there are costs associated with liberal policies toward expression on college campuses.  I contend that those costs are minimal and the benefits of allowing free expression on college campuses greatly outweigh the potential risks.

In this particular instance, it’s difficult to see how this event caused such pervasive harm that we should consider limiting speech at Oakland University.

Based on the account provided by the letter’s author, the only discernable damage that was done by this incident was that some students were upset by the speech that was taking place on campus that day. Limiting speech because some people disagree with it or because it upsets a particular group would be a terrible practice for a university.

The purpose of a university is to promote the exchange of ideas. As such, the goal of liberal higher education should be to expose individuals to a diversity of thought. This means students can expect to be frequently exposed to ideas that conflict with their own view of the world.  It is only through this process in which our ideas and views are challenged that we can learn to develop those ideas and defend them in the arena of public discourse.

As such, individuals who want to be shielded from this experience through policies that seek to constrain speech they find upsetting display a lack of emotional maturity required to participate in higher education.

What this particular letter demonstrates is that some individuals are quick to falsely assume that speech doesn’t have value if it is factually incorrect or upsetting to particular audiences. The event described in the letter outlines why that is not the case.

At minimum, the fact that individuals were given an opportunity to discuss and challenge ideas they believed were abhorrent demonstrates the value of an open speech policy. It seems unlikely that a conversation about these issues would have taken place that day had we not allowed this speech to take place on OU’s campus.

Furthermore, the letter demonstrates that people who fail to recognize the value of all speech often respond by trying to silence speech they don’t like, instead of challenging it. This is demonstrated by the author when he writes:

“I tried stopping one man from asking a question, failed, and continued to proceed to the library . . . ”

“I truly did want everyone to disperse. Yes, this man was exercising his First Amendment right of freedom of speech. Yes, this man was intentionally offending many people and their backgrounds. And the only solution I had was to convey my message for everyone to leave, give no information on my background (other than my name), and be the example that I wanted to see from everyone else by leaving.”

This attitude reflects what appears to be a growing idea that college students shouldn’t be exposed to ideas that may make them uncomfortable or that conflict with their own view of the world.

That assumption has recently been taken a step further on some college campuses where students actually demand the university protect them from speech that makes them uncomfortable.

Fortunately, the account provided in the letter detailed the fact that most students embraced the encounter with an attitude that reflects the spirit of higher education.  They met ugly and unpopular speech with more speech and participated in the exchange of ideas.

“I watched as many students with good questions, solid logic and reasoning, and an honest willingness to have this man listen and hear what they were saying to see the error of his preaching,” the letter said. “I talked to some students of various backgrounds, talked to a very intelligent and patient young woman who wanted to show/tell him the truth about Islam . . . ”

It’s important that students understand that there is a lesson to be learned from the example set by their peers described in the paragraph above.

The next time you encounter speech you don’t like, it might be wise to follow their example and challenge it.  You may find this to be a more intellectually rewarding experience than simply trying to silence the speech or complaining about it happening.

Oakland University does not exist to protect us from aspects of the world we find upsetting.  On the contrary, it exists so our fellow students and the faculty can engage in a diverse array of ideas and opinions, including ones that are upsetting and conflict with our own personal views.

If you remain unconvinced of this, I simply ask that, if you wish to see the individual right to free expression limited on campus, you provide a better justification than the fact that occasionally some people may be made uncomfortable by some forms of speech.

The implication that speech should be limited on this basis is far removed from the tradition of higher education and liberal thought, and it is not conducive to fostering an environment where people may grow through the open exchange of ideas.

If the university were to pursue policy based on illiberal requests to limit speech, the result would be an environment in which students wouldn’t be free to explore and challenge a wide range of ideas — a much higher price to pay than occasionally being made uncomfortable by speech  we disagree with.