Last week, a speaker from outside the university community made the appropriate arrangements to speak on our campus in an area specifically designated for this kind of speech. He was a religious preacher, and, from reports I have received, angered and offended more than a few of the people who heard him. Some students have inquired why the university would allow a speaker to say things calculated to anger and offend at least some members of the university community. This is a fair question, and I’m happy to respond to it.
The brief answer is that doing so is required by the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment is not simply freedom to make noncontroversial or innocuous claims, but the freedom to say controversial or offensive things, things even considered to be hateful.
Our nation has discovered words that initially offended and angered us were actually words which we now believe to be good and true. We have discovered that sometimes the most valuable thing a speaker can do is make us angry. Consequently, it is settled law that speech may not be suppressed simply because it will make people angry or offended, or even because some listeners might characterize the speech as “hateful.”
Furthermore, the First Amendment protects offensive speech even if listeners might become so angry as to be tempted to inflict violence on the speaker. In a free society, it is simply inappropriate and illegal to suppress or punish speech through acts of violence. On our campus, for example, someone who silenced a speaker with a blow to the teeth could expect to face discipline and criminal charges.
We cannot allow possible violence from an audience to cancel a speech. Instead, we have to take reasonable actions to protect speakers from audience violence.
I’ve talked so far about the freedom of speech protected by the Constitution. I should also add that the university believes itself to have a special obligation to protect and encourage speech from any number of viewpoints.
Some of our students may have grown up in households where they were taught that some subjects — religion or politics, for example — were not appropriate topics for “polite dinner table conversation.” We don’t think like this at a university.
We think this is a place where the most controversial subjects can be freely explored, where any number of viewpoints on these subjects can be freely expressed. We believe, with the Greek philosopher Socrates, that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Consequently, we prize the examination of all kinds of ideas from all kinds of perspectives, believing that this kind of examination is more likely to lead us to the truth.
I should add that the university also values civility and seeks to cultivate a community in which the holders of many different ideas are welcome. Part of students’ academic training should consist of learning how to argue about controversial subjects within the bounds of civility.
We know, though, that treating one another with civility does not mean that we must avoid talking about serious and controversial subjects, even subjects that may create offense. We know as well that speakers from outside our community may not always value our traditions of civility, but that their speech is also worth protecting.
When our students face speech they find wrong, objectionable, or even offensive, I hope they will exercise their owns freedoms — the freedom to argue against a particular viewpoint, the freedom to listen in silence, the freedom to walk away, and, sometimes, the freedom to change their minds. TAS