|I recently received a letter from the parent of one of our students that demonstrates free speech is alive and well at CU.|
The parent wrote, “We’ve attended talks by Milo Yiannopoulos and Charles Murray. Both events were managed phenomenally well by the campus police. Neither speaker was interrupted, walked out on, or shouted down. And the attendees were safe. Charles Murray remarked about how exceptional it was to come to a campus and actually get to speak and answer questions.”
When the right-wing provocateur Yiannopoulos spoke at the University of California, Berkeley weeks before his CU appearance, a riot ensued, with smashed windows and burned cars. When Murray, author of the controversial book “The Bell Curve” spoke at Middlebury College, he was shouted down and couldn’t continue. A faculty member was hospitalized after the protest turned violent.
So what makes CU different, a place where provocative and controversial speakers are heard with civility and respect? The answer is we have been working for a decade to ensure a culture where our campuses value and promote free speech. Our bedrock belief is that we must teach students how to think, not what to think. Part of that is hearing varied – and sometimes uncomfortable or even ludicrous – viewpoints.
This isn’t a conservative issue or a liberal issue. It’s an issue for everyone who cares about our society and its future. And it’s one liberals and conservatives must address together, much as we do with our Center for Western Civilization, Thought and Policy, which I have written about previously.
Other universities are following our lead, including UC Berkeley, which is starting a center modeled on ours. Steven Hayward, CU’s first Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy, is leading their effort.
Fostering free speech also takes a united front from CU leadership – from the four campus chancellors to the Board of Regents to me. CU Boulder Chancellor Phil DiStefano gave his perspective in a recent communique, when he noted that discussion and debate are essential to enhancing educational experiences, creating and advancing knowledge, and ensuring a thriving democracy.
CU embraces free speech, so it’s important that our policies match our principles and practices. I’m pleased that the Board of Regents is considering a provision of the Laws of the Regents that, for the first time, will make CU’s commitment to freedom of expression part of our highest governing documents.
CU campuses are places where ideas not only can clash, but should clash. It’s only when they are subject to scrutiny that knowledge advances and learning occurs. We’re proposing the Laws of the Regents recognize that “the university’s faculty, staff and students have a responsibility to protect the university as a forum for the free expression of ideas.” We also want it clear that “the free exchange of ideas includes not only the right to speak, but the right to listen.”
I’m not advocating that anyone needs to agree with someone else’s ideas and theories. In fact, I encourage those who disagree to join the conversation. The correct response to offensive or objectionable ideas is to challenge them through reasoned debate, not suppression.
Respecting someone’s right to hold and express beliefs is different from saying every belief is entitled to respect. Some people believe the Earth is flat. I don’t respect that opinion; I find it silly. The United States Supreme Court framed the issue when it found that flag burning, an act I personally abhor, is constitutionally permitted speech. The decision, which both Justice Thurgood Marshall and Justice Antonin Scalia joined, explained that “a principal function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.”
Although our country is divided in many ways, higher education must not shy away from contentious issues. We must give faculty the ability to engage and teach without fear that they will be attacked for taking on tough issues. We must give the students the opportunities and tools to critically evaluate what they hear so they can decide for themselves what to believe.
Our campuses have hosted Milo and Murray, Republican presidential debates and Democratic presidential candidates, Vicente Fox debating Nigel Farage, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. All have been welcome without the violence and incivility we have seen elsewhere. The marriage of policies and practices will help ensure that free speech always is welcome at CU. Other campuses call themselves the free speech campuses, but we can honestly call CU the free speech university.
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