Trustees | Freedom of Expression

This Fall, Can Colleges Turn a New Leaf on Free Speech?

TIMES RECORD   |  September 16, 2016 by Armand Alacbay and Nick Barden

As students and faculty begin a new academic year, many colleges face a choice between supporting free expression and shielding students from potentially traumatic material, censoring and even punishing those who offend.

This issue was on full display in Maine when Bowdoin College President Clayton Rose discussed free expression and free discourse during the college’s Aug. 30 convocation. In his memorable “Opening of the College” address, President Rose addressed the tragic and terrifying events of the summer— the Orlando nightclub shooting; the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and eight police officers; violence in Nice and Istanbul. He called for “full, open, and respectful engagement with others and with ideas that can be unfamiliar and challenging” and “to step out of the echo chamber that tells us only what we want to hear.”

This exhortation is a glimmer of light at a school that has previously struggled to defend the free exchange of ideas and vigorous debate that is vital to a thriving democracy. It builds upon his 2016 commencement address, which included a call for open and honest discourse on topics that may be “deeply uncomfortable and sometimes even offensive.”

This new emphasis is needed. Bowdoin’s record has been checkered by events such as the 2009 censure of a faculty member who disseminated an article deemed embarrassing to the school and last year’s overzealous policing of insensitive party costumes.

Bowdoin is not alone in its past shortcomings. Free speech faces unique challenges on campuses in part because today’s students have mixed views on its importance. An April Gallup survey found that 27 percent of college students support campus restrictions on “expressing political views that are upsetting or offensive to certain groups,” and almost half are open to limiting the access of journalists to public protest events.

Across the country, many universities have instituted restrictions on free expression in the name of fostering more inclusive and tolerant campus climates. Just last year, college administrators at dozens of schools responded to student unrest and protests by creating so-called safe spaces, expanding the use of trigger warnings, and removing artifacts featuring controversial historical figures.

By sheltering them from differing opinions, these colleges and universities do their students a disservice. This behavior reinforces conformity at the expense of critical thinking, academic rigor and inquiry. Far from shielding students from harm, these institutions risk leaving students without the fortitude and wisdom necessary to engage with the world they are entering — they may satisfy students in the short term, but at the cost of longterm preparation for citizenship in a turbulent world.

Colleges and universities are at a crossroads. With the new academic year beginning, new incidents and controversies are sure to arise. How will Bowdoin and colleges across the country respond?

They should find greater resolve by taking note of the surprising amount of common ground on the issue, from courageous leaders at respected universities to the White House. Delivering Howard University’s commencement speech last May, President Obama warned against the trend of dis-inviting and disrupting controversial speakers and viewpoints, urging students to keep an open mind and engage with challenging ideas.

For guidance, colleges can also look to the University of Chicago, whose 2014 Statement on Principles of Free Expression declares that “debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas … are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral or wrongheaded.”

Just days before Bowdoin students returned to campus, the University of Chicago captured headlines with a letter to students reaffirming this commitment and denouncing intellectual “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and other practices that would truncate dialogue and learning. Princeton, Purdue, Johns Hopkins and other leading universities across the country have formally adopted Chicago’s model — known as the Chicago Principles.

By embracing the broad protection of speech and expression on its own campus through the Chicago Principles, Bowdoin can join these distinguished ranks and ensure that its students can become mature, intellectually-engaged, and open-minded citizens.

Under the auspices of this call for renewed engagement and debate, colleges and universities like Bowdoin have an opportunity to demonstrate courage and leadership. Ensuring that free speech and vigorous debate are valued both in word and in deed, higher education leaders can stimulate a better-informed discourse and prepare students far better for engaged and effective citizenship.


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