UI works to stress values of free expression, safety

UI works to stress values of free expression, safety

URBANA — As colleges coast to coast grapple with violent protests over extremist rallies and controversial speakers, the University of Illinois is developing a position paper on freedom of expression and campus climate.

President Tim Killeen asked faculty leaders last week to review a draft that grew out of discussions at the July board of trustees retreat in Chicago. Two other position papers, on civic engagement and globalization, are also being developed.

Killeen sees it as a proactive approach to what has been a thorny issue for schools like Cal-Berkeley, where a talk by provocative speaker Ann Coulter was canceled for safety reasons, and off-campus protesters set fires and broke windows at a talk by alt-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos.

Killeen declined to make the UI statement public yet, as it's still being vetted, but said it's rooted in the bedrock traditions of the First Amendment.

"We're committed to both freedom of expression but also safety," Killeen said. "Campus climate is part of the conversation, too.

"We want to ensure that students are exposed to the full diversity of concepts and ideas."

Killeen said the statement doesn't contain anything too surprising, but "we did feel that we sort of needed to have our own statement" rather than relying on other schools.

The document reiterates the First Amendment rights to assemble and discuss issues freely, he said.

"We want our students to be exposed to lots of ideas and even ideas they might disagree with vehemently, and be able to have platforms to respond," he said. "We want speakers to be able to be speak and be heard."

Professor Nicholas Burbules welcomed the effort and said the sooner it's in place, the better.

"I'm sure there are going to be controversial speakers invited to this campus," he said, and it's good to have a common understanding "before these hot-button issues come to the fore."

'We can't have violence'

Top UI leaders issued statements last month condemning the violence and hate that grew out of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, near the University of Virginia.

"The fact that it happened on a sister university campus was sort of brought home. We're obviously not immune," Killeen said. "We need to be prepared."

The state of Illinois doesn't allow guns on college campuses, but other things can be used as weapons, too, he said.

"And so in our thinking about how we would handle events like that, obviously separating antagonists is a big part of the strategy — making sure our student body and our faculty and staff are as safe as we can make them and not infringing on the rights of people to express their views," he said.

"We can't have violence or disruption of speech that is beyond the pale. People deserve to be heard."

The 'rabble-rousers'

Government, including public universities, can't punish speech simply because it's mean-spirited or hateful, said Vikram Amar, dean of the College of Law and an expert in constitutional law.

What it can do, he said, is punish targeted threats, pervasive harassment or incitement to violence, all of which fall outside First Amendment protections.

"We're a public university. We are going to have a lot of speech activities that take place on our campuses," Amar said. "There's going to be friction. The question is how you manage that, how you harness that, how do you use that to your advantage?"

Amar suggests educating students, faculty and staff about their free speech rights, and about the costs of hateful speech, particularly the potential harm inflicted on others. And administrators can speak up and call out hateful speech for what it is, he said.

Many controversial speakers brought to campus by student groups today are "mere rabble-rousers" who don't contribute anything meaningful to the kind of debate universities should promote, he said.

"Just because a speaker is controversial doesn't mean that person is worth inviting and listening to," he said in a recent UI interview.

At the same time, he said, students coming into the university today are "much less steeped in the history of robust free speech movements throughout America."

'We have to be ready'

The millennial generation is more sympathetic to people who have been unfairly treated, Amar said, but "I don't know that they fully appreciate that you can't allow suppression of speech you don't like without risking being the one who's suppressed in a different time."

"If you let majorities silence unpopular speakers, then you can't have the civil rights movement or the abolitionist movement," Amar said. "It's not just the 'alt right' that can be suppressed."

The U.S. system is based on the idea that the answer to bad speech is more speech. So demonstrations and protests are fine, but blockades, shouting down speakers and threats of violence are "all out of bounds," Amar said.

The school should also have people analyzing these issues in a larger context — perhaps through some kind of standing committee — "not just reacting to each episode," Amar added.

The campuses have been reviewing procedures for scenarios like Charlottesville so they can make better decisions in real time, Killeen said.

"As one of our chancellors said, 'It's not if we're going to have this, it's when.' So we have to be ready," Executive Vice President Barb Wilson said.

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GLG wrote on September 04, 2017 at 8:09 am

'We can't have violence'

But We can hire violent people and have violent radicals speak here, William "Billy the bomber" Ayers.

Angela Davis.

James Kilgore.






Notsoaveragejoe wrote on September 04, 2017 at 9:09 am

What has to be addressed is a clear message that opposing speech is not necessarily "hate speech." The liberal bias of the profession is developing a culture of sameness both in hiring practice and institutional message and part of this message is that "Your beliefs offend me, therefore this is hate". Students are more likely to be indoctrinated in this environment rather than exposed to an array of ideologies and encouraged to develop their own perspective on matters.   

chief21 wrote on September 04, 2017 at 4:09 pm

As long as it's speech we agree with .....We're all for Free Speech....but if you utter any conservative points..we'll simply call it "Hate Speech" and push you to the side.