Editors’ Note: This piece is adapted from the author’s winning essay for the Center for the Study of American Democracy’s recent competition, held in conjunction with its conference Free Speech, Civil Discourse.
Amid a period of rampant clashes about the parameters of free speech, the Kenyon faculty unanimously decided to adopt a resolution regarding free expression on campus. The resolution, adopted this past spring, seeks to reaffirm the College’s commitment to academic freedom in order to “encourage critical and creative thinking” among students.
Although the resolution makes room for discourse with ideas that many students may vehemently disagree with, questions remain regarding the fulfillment of a stated goal of the resolution. The resolution asserts that exposure to disagreeable speech “improves our ability to defend [our opinions] rationally and persuasively,” but how are students expected to mount a rational and persuasive defense?
The resolution also states that Kenyon will not limit speech outside of select circumstances. Those instances are ones which harm a community member’s ability to fully participate in academic and nonacademic settings because of discriminatory harassment, invasion of privacy or defamation.
Under Kenyon’s current definitions of harassment, “Speech that conveys reasoned opinion, principled conviction, or speculation,” a very broad swath of language, is protected, and therefore does not constitute grounds for a violation.
However, speech that specifically targets individuals based upon protected identities, or poses an imminent danger to the community, is prohibited. Kenyon’s policy — allowing a broad spectrum of permissible, decent speech conduct — presumably should extend not only to students and faculty, but also to outside speakers who come to share ideas with our community.
What happens when an invited speaker does not hold themselves to the same minimum level of decency? Last year, the University of California at Berkeley campus exploded with violence in protest against Milo Yiannopoulos, a widely-condemned speaker and former Breitbart senior editor. Yiannopoulos’s speaking record on college campuses violates Kenyon’s discriminatory harassment policy.
During his tour, Yiannopoulos has targeted individuals in the audience, harassed students who ask questions, and has largely assumed the role of provocateur rather than scholar. When considering whether such a speaker should be disinvited, Kenyon’s policy would dictate that concerns relating to “civility and mutual respect should never be used as a justification for limiting the discussion of ideas.”
Students should not be entitled to ideological safety under the guise of civility, yet when a speaker possesses a record of harassment and brings the threat of imminent violence, the maintenance of community safety must take precedence and the speaker’s invitation ought to be declined.
Rather than a give a platform to celebrities and mere agitators, colleges ought to actively seek out content rooted in rigorous, peer-reviewed academic work that nonetheless allows for a rigorous debate of ideas. What speech, therefore, should be brought to campus? Students understand the immense power of ideas, and many believe that their university should not give power and prestige to ideas that have promoted policies or normalized language that run against ideals of equality and justice, even when packaged in a sober, academic form.
These students deem such presentations of ideas as a waste of time — they say that they would be willing to listen to certain voices they disagree with, but not those that deny the basic humanity of members of the student body — namely speech that unabashedly promotes racism, sexism, ableism and xenophobia.
If students wish to combat these forces, and believe a speaker articulates a viewpoint in line with humanity-denying rhetoric, they should welcome the opportunity to oppose them. Several of those forces to combat are not on the fringe, as many believe, but rather are on the rise. Kenyon’s resolution on free expression rightly seeks to “provide the conditions within which strong disagreements” can occur, but it does not respond to a concern of students eager to oppose speech with which they disagree.
The format of a traditional lecture not only grants a speaker a significant period of unchallenged speech, but it also restricts opposition to that speech. Questions are restricted to an allotted Q&A, which fails to adequately allow students to make their voices heard. As such, many turn to disruptive means of communication, be it shouting down the speaker or simply preventing the speaker from accessing the venue.
Ideas deemed hateful are held by many Americans, as well as by figures of authority who hold important levels of power, be it in business, political or academic realms. So, despite the limited capacity to legitimately oppose ideas they disagree with, college students — many of whom will become leaders in their own right — should never shy away at the chance to debate, face to face, with a figure whose ideas may be influential among those whose policy-making, research and writing may oppose their own vision of a better world.
George Goldman ’20 is undeclared from Sharon, Mass. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.