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Princeton Professor Sparks Debate on Campus Free Speech

On Wednesday in McGuinn auditorium, Professor Keith E. Whittington of Princeton University discussed why free speech on college campuses should be valued.

Whittington is a professor of politics, an author of many publications, and an editor. He has published on a wide range of topics such as American constitutional theory and development, federalism, judicial politics, and the presidency.

Professor Whittington raised some thought-provoking arguments during the presentation. He questioned the role of universities throughout his discussion and claimed that people defend free speech only until they are faced with disturbing opposition. Whittington stated that the mission of the University is to try and seek knowledge. It is easy to listen to pleasing ideas but harder to listen to those that are not. 

In the current times we are living in, Whittington recognized that some issues are simply too difficult to tolerate. However, a school should not be “trying to indoctrinate students” but rather should deal with controversial ideas by giving students freedom to experiment and decide how tolerant they want to be. He stated that being open to criticisms and testing boundaries is both important and necessary.

Universities, according to Whittington, should be the breeding grounds for discussions and should create an environment in which students feel comfortable making mistakes. Whittington noted that the “only true way to attain knowledge is through arguments.” Students must stand up to criticisms and scrutiny, and in doing so, discussions that are mandatory for self-growth and development will be sparked.

Whittington also covered the topic of censors in the current political environment. He believes that those in power use censors very widely which is why there should be limited power in the hands of the administration when it comes to free speech. There should not be a higher authority making decisions for students or citizens.

The conversation then moved to the concept of protests. Whittington believes that campuses must have a space for protestors. Even if the protest offends some students, those who are offended, according to Whittington, have the right to simply ignore this speech.

Photo courtesy of Keith E. Whittington / Twitter

Following his discussion, the floor was opened for questions. Whittington received challenging questions on university policies, including BC’s status as a religious institution, the speakers brought in as a result of the university's religious background, and safe spaces.

In addressing other institutions, the professor discussed the paperwork that universities require professors to sign in the hiring process. This paperwork allows the university to follow a commitment to inclusion, diversity, and non-discrimination.

Whittington presented the fact that if the hiring committee knows beforehand that the applicant is religious or conservative, the applicant is less likely to receive a job offer. Whittington strongly believes that this practice is dangerous. Universities should hire a wide range of people with an array of views and beliefs which will, in the end, benefit the students.

Regarding safe spaces, Whittington argued that we cannot treat the entirety of a campus as a safe space. While there could be pockets of the campus where safe spaces may be acceptable, the whole campus should not have an overarching censor. If the whole campus turns into a safe space, students lose the ability to debate.

A student in UGBC raised the idea of “red spaces” rather than safe spaces. Red spaces would be similar to safe spaces except reversed. Red spaces would create designated areas on campus where free speech can occur. Students could go to these spaces to speak freely. Just as there is an importance to safe spaces, there is a similar importance to red spaces.

Whittington claimed that there is always a censor, but we need to have people who disagree and challenge ideas. This comment got him into a sticky situation with one of the audience members who fired back with the question: if there is a censor either way, wouldn’t it make more sense to side with the oppressed against the powerful, instead of with the powerful against the oppressed?

To this comment, the professor proceeded to reiterate what he said in his discussion while acknowledging that he understood where the student was coming from.

Whittington also acknowledged that campuses are living communities for many students and if speech reaches the point of harassment, living on campus can become difficult or unbearable.

Free speech remains a contentious topic of discussion. There is a fine line between freedom of speech and harassment. If there is a line to be crossed, then how much freedom is too much when it comes to speech? If universities use the First Amendment to protect the powerful and offensive, then shouldn’t BC also invite pro-choice and pro-LGBT groups to campus to speak?

Whittington's primary argument was that free speech on campus is necessary for students to hear views both similar to and opposite their own. In doing so, they can expand their perspectives. While the talk may have left the audience with more questions than answers, it did initiate discussion on a number of important issues and encouraged students to consider free speech on campus.

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