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When universities become ‘safe spaces’ from free speech

FILE – People walk on the campus at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif. A new federal report finds that record-keeping failures by the Education Department may have left thousands of Americans stuck with student debt that should have been forgiven. A study released Wednesday, April 20, 20220, by the Government Accountability Office revealed flaws in the management of income-driven repayment plans. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that it was the dean of students in the college at the University of Chicago who sent a letter to incoming students defending free speech on campus. We regret the error.

Recent events at Stanford Law School are a sad sign of the state of academia. Students screamed sexual and other obscenities at a conservative judge invited to speak by a conservative student group to prevent his talking. 

When, after some time, the speaker asked if a university administrator might intervene to enable him to talk, the associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion came to the podium and began an obviously prepared, nine-minute speech. She validated the students’ demonstration as an important exercise of free speech rights, and sympathized with the harm they might have suffered from the speaker’s views, while gently reminding them of the importance of allowing others to exercise speech rights.

She lectured the speaker about the harm he had inflicted on the students by his views (presumably those addressing same-sex marriage, the use of personal pronouns and gun control) and said she hoped he had been “educated” by this encounter with the students. She ended by inviting students who felt they would be harmed by hearing his words to walk out, before inviting the speaker to give his remarks.

This is a sad contrast to some student protests of the past. In the early 1960s, Black students risked their lives sitting in at lunch counters in the South to protest segregation. In 1964 student “Freedom Riders” from the North headed south in buses, knowing that when they reached their destinations in Mississippi and Alabama, they would be hauled off those buses by white mobs and brutally assaulted.

It’s a sad contrast also to the way many leading universities in the past prided themselves on exposing students to disturbing ideas. In my time at Radcliffe College, the rabid segregationist Govs. George Wallace (D-Ala.) and Ross Barnett (D-Miss.) spoke at Harvard’s Sanders Theater, and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro spoke to a capacity crowd at the Harvard football stadium. I don’t think Wallace and Barnett made many converts. More likely they helped inspire many of us to go south to do civil rights work, as I did in the summer of 1963. Castro did make converts in his initially hostile crowd. 

University leaders today pride themselves on keeping students safe — safe from potentially disturbing ideas and safe from potentially disturbing romantic or sexual encounters. The Stanford associate dean for DEI defended herself in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, arguing that her speech was what she had been trained to do. And likely it was what she and other such DEI administrators are trained to do — focus on keeping students “safe.” 

Many university leaders also seem motivated to keep themselves safe, rather than taking risks based on principle. Stanford Law School initially took no action against its DEI dean, and only later, after apparently hearing criticism, said without explanation that she was “on leave.”

Universities tolerated sexual assault for years until they came under pressure from students, women’s right groups and the federal government, with its power to withdraw funding. Then it became safer for universities to enact repressive sexual codes that denied any fair process to those accused, which they did. Leading universities are now said to recruit based primarily on the safety they have to offer students, as opposed, for example, to the quality of education.

But, interestingly, it’s often not safe today for students, or faculty, to express themselves in class or elsewhere in the academic environment. Faculty and students talk regularly today about the silencing phenomenon — about how speaking up in a way inconsistent with popularly held views creates risks that most students and faculty members prefer to avoid. 

University leaders have done little to make it safe to speak. The dean of students in the college at the University of Chicago stands alone among leaders of our most prestigious universities in taking a principled position on this: He sent a letter to the incoming college class some years ago, alerting them to the fact that free speech was an important value there and that they could not expect to be protected from ideas if they chose to attend.

With the Supreme Court on the verge of eliminating affirmative action; with racism ongoing and newly resurgent; with some politicians targeting LGBTQ rights and some nations imposing the death penalty for gay sex; and with economic injustice at a new high, students and academic leaders need to find better ways to promote diversity, equity and inclusion.

Elizabeth Bartholet is professor of law, emeritus, at Harvard Law School.

Tags Fidel Castro Free speech free speech on college campuses Stanford Law School Stanford University Stanford University

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