Free speech on campus?

Free speech on campus?

If the University of Illinois is to answer the question in the affirmative, officials must stand ready to protect all speech — especially the unpopular.

University of Illinois President Timothy Killeen is overseeing a forthcoming declaration reiterating the university's commitment to the principles of free speech.

But he recently gave a preview of what to expect, one that was both encouraging and discouraging.

He said the UI intends to ensure that "students are exposed to the full diversity of concepts and ideas." It's always good to see the UI agreeing with the fundamental idea behind the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But Killeen also spoke of ensuring student "safety" when it comes to evaluating speech, a word that has been used to shut down speech on some campuses.

At the same time, the UI College of Law Dean Vikram Amar noted that so-called hate speech is, for a very good reason, constitutionally protected speech while warning that some "rabble-rousers" aren't worth hearing or, more importantly, being invited to campus.

Dean Amar is absolutely correct that some people are far more deserving of an audience than others.

But who decides? Aye, there's the rub.

Just as one man's trash is another man's treasure, one person's compelling speaker can be another's utter bore or offensive provocateur.

That's why the issue is not so much who's invited to campus to speak, but what type of reception will be granted to the invited speaker.

It should go without saying — but, unfortunately, no longer does — that all speakers should be given a polite reception and that any protests be peaceful.

But the current mood on campus is one of extreme intolerance in some quarters toward those who take positions disfavored by enforcers of campus orthodoxy.

The University of California, Berkeley, is just one school where protesters engaged in extreme violence against persons and property.

Just last week, a UI student group promised the same kind of response here if anyone runs afoul of its self-proclaimed rules.

The Students for Justice in Palestine issued a statement indicating it is willing to use violent tactics to stop people it deems fascists, white supremacists and Zionists from speaking on campus because "speech is not just expression but violence."

"Just as oppressed and marginalized voices are made oppressed and marginalized by unjust systems of governance and societal organization, so too do these forces seek to protect the rights and speech of literal Nazis, of white supremacists all along the political spectrum, and those who seek to implement and continue all manner of ethnic cleansing or indigenous genocide. This speech is not just expression but violence."

The student group stated that "we do not believe there is any other option (than violence) when it comes to dealing with fascists and white supremacists."

"Granting them any platform will only lead to further normalization of their violent ideologies," decreed the Students for Palestine.

The main, but certainly not the only, problem with that assertion is that it's the SJP that decides who is a fascist, white supremacist or Zionist, and it will come down on anyone who disagrees with the organization's world view. That's particularly true as it relates to Israel, which the SJP characterizes as both fascist and white supremacist.

It's especially disappointing that college campuses, once beacons of free speech, inquiry and thinking, have become the segment of American society most hostile to those noble concepts.

Perhaps it will change one day — preferably sooner rather than later. But if the respectful airing of points of view on controversial issues is to become the rule, rather than the exception, the UI is going to have to stand up for what is right — freedom of speech for all.

The tepid defense of free speech that President Killeen hints at won't get the job done.

UI officials need to let campus speakers stand or fall in the marketplace of ideas, oversee law enforcement practices that strictly separate hostile political factions and make it crystal clear that those who violate campus rules will be punished, not given a pass.

It's no secret the UI has failed miserably on the free speech front in recent months. The disruption of Gov. Bruce Rauner's speech at a campus awards ceremony was an embarrassment. That was followed by the outrageous decision to back off a planned lecture by a Nobel Prize winner who wanted to discuss his cancer research on campus.

It took a group of zealots to run Rauner out, just one misguided extremist, a faculty member no less, to pull the plug on the Nobel Prize winner.

But whether the free speech foes are large or small, loud or shrill, they must be resisted if the UI is to demonstrate its professed commitment to true diversity of view rather conformity masquerading as diversity.

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Notsoaveragejoe wrote on September 11, 2017 at 7:09 pm

This is excellent.

JohnRalphio wrote on September 14, 2017 at 9:09 am

James Watson is a bigot who had no business speaking here. Many reasonable members of the biology faculty opposed his being INVITED by the U of I to speak. Many students protested Rauner and his destructive policies when he had the gall to show up at the university he's systematically undermined. All these people exercised THEIR rights to speak freely, to good effect.

But according to the N-G, if the U of I doesn't allow literal Nazis to come disrupt campus with hate speech, we're all just a bunch of snowflakes afraid of free speech. Baloney. Just more of the N-G doing all it can to make the University look bad.

Rauner is the embarrassment to Illinois, not our students.