The Forum | Freedom of Expression

Freedom of Speech on Campus: It’s Necessary for the Liberal Learning Curriculum

October 17, 2018

This opinion featured in Volume 50, Issue 5 of The Captains Log, the student newspaper at Christopher Newport University (CNU).

What do the University of Chicago, Purdue University, the University of Nebraska, Johns Hopkins University and 43 other leading colleges and universities have to do with CNU?  These institutions have all endorsed strong written commitments to campus freedom of expression, and CNU now has the opportunity to take a leadership position in this growing, national movement. 

On Tuesday, October 2, President Trible announced to faculty, students, and staff the university’s intent to develop a statement that appropriately characterizes CNU’s commitment to free speech and expression. This is a very important moment for CNU.  In the spirit of free inquiry and open discourse, President Trible has called upon the CNU community to share their comments and suggestions with representatives from the committee that prepared the draft statement.

The first discussion session took place on October 4th, and the remaining two sessions will occur on Thursday, October 11th at 7:00pm, and Friday, October 12th, at 4:00pm in the new Trible Library theatre. These sessions are aimed to be community discussions rather than debates.

Last fall, we began advocating for the adoption of such a statement by reaching out to student organizations and administration. Maintaining a culture of free inquiry and open dialogue requires a conscious commitment to these principles. We greatly appreciate the steps that CNU has taken toward publicly affirming the rights of students, faculty, and staff to speak, inquire, hear, and debate.

Some might fear that endorsing this statement means that the University is promoting all opinions as equal. However, from our point of view, the statement does the exact opposite: all people have the right to express their views, but the value of those views is only determined by the students, faculty, and staff engaging in the free marketplace of ideas.

We need not fear erroneous or even offensive opinion.  Let the faulty ideologies surrounding racism, sexism, and bigotry of all kinds be brought out into the open, where reasoned dialogue can combat them. Truth only becomes clear when we work together in a sound and rational dialogue to sort through our disagreements and discern reality from fantasy, fear, and hatred. It is important to remember that ultimately, America’s  greatest social advances came because of freedom of speech, not through the silencing of viewpoints that diverged from the mainstream beliefs of a past era.

CNU’s draft text owes much of its essence to the Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression of the University of Chicago. The “Chicago Principles” represent a reinvigoration of commitment to a higher standard of conduct and acknowledgement of open discourse as the lifeblood of the University. Free speech organizations have turned to the Chicago Principles as a gold standard for universities to adopt as guiding principles, in thought and practice.

In CNU’s draft statement, the emphasis on civility and allowing space for controversial opinions to be articulated does not prohibit students from speaking out against that with which they disagree. If anything, the draft statement preserves the mode for such discourse––it just means that disruption for the sake of silencing opinions, rather than engaging with and disproving them, is not in alignment with Christopher Newport’s values as a liberal arts institution.

We are here, at Christopher Newport University, seeking lives of significance. In order to be civically engaged to the fullest extent and prepared for a life serving our democratic republic, we as students must have the full rights to engage in discourse. Part of that engagement requires that we are faced with opinions that upset, disgust, or even horrify us.

We encourage all students to attend the upcoming discussions on this issue. We have been lucky not to face the hostility toward controversial speakers recently seen at institutions like Berkeley or Middlebury. However, even though we have never had such issues at CNU, endorsing this statement provides a commitment to future Captains. We feel that this campus represents many of the values of a true liberal arts education, which is not to say that we are perfect. However, CNU’s draft statement provides the platform for future improvements through community dialogue. 

Whether you agree or disagree with the points expressed in the draft statement, we urge you engage in the next discussion. How can we create a community committed to free expression and protect the voices of the minority from being suppressed? How do we simultaneously champion free speech and diversity? These are challenging questions. The only way for us truly to answer them is through community dialogue between students, faculty, and staff.

We close with a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes’ dissent in Abrams vs. the United States: “Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises or your power, and want a certain result with all your heart, you naturally express your wishes in law, and sweep away all opposition. To allow opposition by speech seems to indicate that you think the speech impotent, as when a man says that he has squared the circle, or that you do not care wholeheartedly for the result, or that you doubt either your power or your premises. But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That, at any rate, is the theory of our Constitution.”

At a university, perhaps above all other places, we can acquire the habits the characterize citizens of a free society.  Let us embrace the opportunity confidently to adopt a statement that fosters an environment in which we can best learn and grow.

Moriah Poliakoff and Rachel Wagner are both students at Christopher Newport University (CNU). Rachel was ACTA’s Summer 2018 Lewit Fellow.


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