Free Speech on College Campuses? [Jan-Feb. LD topic]

The NSDA Lincoln-Douglas Debate topic for 2017 Jan/Feb is:

Resolved: Public colleges and universities in the United States ought not restrict any constitutionally protected speech.

“Public” (government-owned) college and universities receive state and federal funding (most private universities also receive significant state and federal support via student loans, research grants, and tax-deductions on contributions).

The Constitution’s First Amendment bans any laws restricting freedom of speech:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Campus speech is in the news with the recent riot at the University of California at Berkeley. How should universities respond to student, faculty, or guest speakers whose talks are deemed by some as intolerant, insulting, or provoking outrage? Well, Congress is barred from making laws “abridging the freedom of speech.”

Did Congress or the State of California pass laws restricting freedom of speech at UC-Berkeley?

FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) is critical of campus speech codes and litigates against them. FIRE’s “What Are Speech Codes?” page explains:Screen Shot 2017-02-03 at 8.59.15 AM

FIRE defines a “speech code” as any university regulation or policy that prohibits expression that would be protected by the First Amendment in society at large. Any policy—such as a harassment policy, a protest and demonstration policy, or an IT acceptable use policy—can be a speech code if it prohibits protected speech or expression.

FIRE’s statement on the Berkeley riots (February 2, 2017):

FIRE condemns both violence and attempts to silence protected expression in the strongest terms. We also urge that decisions affecting long-term policy be made only after all the facts are gathered and with appropriate opportunity for reasoned discussion.

Last week, Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks wrote a letter to the university community rightfully refusing demands that the university cancel the event ahead of time. Dirks pointed out his disagreement with Yiannopoulos’ views, but insisted that “[c]onsistent with the dictates of the First Amendment as uniformly and decisively interpreted by the courts, the university cannot censor or prohibit events, or charge differential fees.” He also warned those threatening disruptive protests in an effort to shut down the speech that the university “will not stand idly by while laws or university policies are violated, no matter who the perpetrators are.”

(Also, Sourcewatch page on FIRE here.)

But though the Berkeley administrators and campus police tried, they were overwhelmed by protesters. Then President Trump joined the controversy. The FIRE post continues:

This morning, President Trump weighed in with a tweet reading, “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?” It is true that, under current law, public universities that enforce blatantly unconstitutional speech codes and private universities that violate their own promises of free speech do not face the same potential loss of federal funding for censoring campus speech that they do for violating other federal civil rights laws and regulations. However, FIRE has so far seen no evidence that Berkeley as an institution made any effort to silence Yiannopoulos.

Shikha Sood Dalmia, a Senior Analyst at the Reason Foundation, posted on Facebook:

Any honest condemnation of the violence at U-C Berkeley has to begin by condemning also the extremists who invited Milo [Yiannopoulos] to speak in the first place. What IS the point of having this loathsome creature on campus except to bait and incite and flex your muscles in Trump’s America?

How do college administers decide who should be allowed to teach at or give guest talks on college campuses? Lots of presentations can sound controversial. That’s one way to get students’ attention.

I give talks on debate topics on college conferences organized by the Texas University Interscholastic League (UIL). UIL had a topic on campus speech codes a couple years ago, and in a session I asked students if anything said would be okay: “How about: A woman’s place is in the House…” Of course there was immediate commotion and noisy responses from students who wouldn’t be able to hear me continue “… of Representatives.”

Shouting down a speaker prevents audiences from hearing enough to make up their own minds. But audiences, especially students, can be drawn into worlds of violent and hateful ideas. Teachers and administers try to provide some guidance in high school and college classrooms and campuses. But what happens when teachers or college professors are accused of promoting violence…

An article on CNS News (Conservative News Service), titled “College Instructors Tell Students: America’s Founding Fathers Ran ‘A Terrorist Organization’” complains:

Instructors at the taxpayer-funded University of Colorado at Colorado Springs (UCCS) reportedly told students enrolled in their team-taught humanities class that America’s founding fathers ran “a terrorist organization” and used “violence and terror to influence opinions” in their fight for independence from Great Britain.

The CNS News post says: Benson and Lee compared the colonists’ revolt to modern-day terrorists. That may sound a controversial or hateful way to look at America’s Founding, but revolutionaries do use violence and the threat of violence to achieve their aims. They claim that the ends justify the means.

Though Hollywood is not our best source for history, Mel Gibson’s 200o movie The Patriot could have been titled The Terrorist. UK’s The Guardian was not amused, and explains in “The Patriot: more flag-waving rot with Mel Gibson” (July 23, 2009).

A more scholarly review is The Patriot: Movie Review, in the Journal of American History (Vol. 83, No. 3) which notes:

The most serious deficiency of The Patriot is its almost complete omission of the Loyalists. A significant segment of the population of the Carolinas and Georgia remained loyal, and much of the fighting there was a civil war between Tories and Whigs. Though Loyalist provincial and militia units constituted one-half of the British army in the South, the film portrays only one Loyalist soldier, Captain Wilkins (Adam Baldwin) in Colonel Tavington’s (Jason Isaacs) dragoons. …
The film gives the impression that Tavington’s regiment is British and that Captain Wilkins is the only Loyalist in its ranks. No other Loyalist soldiers appear in The Patriot.

Students may wonder why this post has drifted from constitutionally protected campus speech to patriots as terrorists in the Revolutionary War. My point is just that there is often more to controversial claims and stories, and suppressing the presentation and discussion of those stories limits our knowledge of the world.

College guest speakers or faculty with a talk on “America’s Founders as Terrorists” might get banned, fired, or shouted down before they can make their case. Students can disagree after hearing controversial claims about the past or present, but they are left living in narrow worlds without occasionally exposed to disruptive and sometimes illuminating ideas and claims.

Speech and debate competition is valuable for students to widen those worlds as they develop skills to research and articulate views as well as consider, evaluate, and agree or disagree with the views of others.

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. Aristotle

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