Protecting Free Speech on Campus

College and university presidents tackle how to protect the fundamental right
Rate this item
(0 votes)

For this special feature, we invited the presidents of the region’s leading institutions of higher education to respond to the following: The American Civil Liberties Union has written that “An open society depends on liberal education, and the whole enterprise of liberal education is founded on the principle of free speech.” Yet surveys suggest that a growing percentage of college students across the country think it’s okay to try and prevent speech with which they disagree. How important is it to you to maintain a marketplace of ideas on your campus and how do you do that in today’s politically charged atmosphere? Their responses follow.

James H. Mullen, Jr.

ALLEGHENY COLLEGE, James H. Mullen, Jr.

Allegheny College is a learning community deeply rooted in the liberal arts tradition. That tradition grows from a commitment to the rigorous pursuit of truth, the free and full discussion of ideas, and a respect for difference. We have a unique responsibility to be open to all thought and to guarantee freedom of expression; as an institution, we also have a related responsibility to speak up against speech that challenges our core mission and principles. Together, these responsibilities are of fundamental importance to the future of democracy in America. In the past decade, our country has seen worrisome signs in the level of civility in our national discourse — a decline that we fear will drive young people from engagement in public life. This concerning development inspired us, in 2011, to create the national Allegheny College Prize for Civility in Public Life, awarded annually to individuals in the public arena who have demonstrated noteworthy civility. Last year, we established companion prizes at the state level in Pennsylvania and for Allegheny students. Critiquing incivility is important, but we will not change the environment unless we put just as much energy into encouraging those who at once express viewpoints with passion and conviction and also practice civility — on our college campuses and in our world.

Geraldine M. Jones

CALIFORNIA UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA, Geraldine M. Jones

California University of Pennsylvania takes pride in its culture of inclusiveness and diversity — and that includes a diversity of opinions and ideas. We recognize that members of our University community hold a variety of views, including perspectives that may not sit comfortably with every listener. University students should expect to encounter new ideas — including some that make them uncomfortable! — in the course of higher education. They can learn from conversations about sensitive topics such as racial justice, local and national politics, and the complexities of interpersonal relationships. They should challenge themselves to dig for the facts and debate the issues of the day, even when those issues prove divisive. We encourage a lively exchange of views at Cal U, both inside and outside the classroom. We promote a spirit of inquiry and support the free expression guaranteed by the First Amendment. But we insist that even the liveliest conversations occur within the framework of our university’s core values: integrity, civility and responsibility. Integrity requires us to think deeply and verify facts before making an argument. Civility calls us to express even our most forceful views without insults, bullying or disrespect. Responsibility holds us accountable for our words and actions, recognizing their consequences for ourselves and others. Guided by these values, we can express our differences without losing sight of our common humanity. And even in the heat of debate, we can learn from one another.

Suzanne K. Mellon

CARLOW UNIVERSITY, Suzanne K. Mellon

As a university with the core mission of educating students and advancing knowledge, we believe that a university campus is a perfect place to demonstrate freedom of thought and that civil discourse can be respectful, inclusive and thought-​provoking. Free speech at Carlow University is governed by two very important fundamentals: the Catholic Intellectual Tradition seeks to promote a dialogue between faith and reason. Dialogue is the key word here, as asking questions and the search for answers to those questions can lead to new knowledge in our respective fields of discipline. In addition, Carlow is founded on the core values of our founders, the Sisters of Mercy. Two of those values, hospitality and sacredness of creation, speak to the issue of maintaining the marketplace of ideas on campus. Through hospitality, we seek to create a welcome space for individuals with varied beliefs, cultures, orientations and abilities. This applies to people with whom we may disagree. And through Sacredness of Creation, we seek to demonstrate respect for each person and all of creation. We have convened a free speech committee with the goal of outlining a policy that both promotes the free exchange of ideas and respects individuals’ rights to disagree.

Farnam Jahanian

CARNEGIE MELLON UNIVERSITY, Farnam Jahanian

For universities, free speech is not just one of many values; it is the foundational value. The free expression of ideas is at the absolute core of our mission. Universities exist for two basic reasons: to create knowledge and to educate people. It’s possible to do either of those things as an individual, but over the course of the last millennium, humans have discovered that they succeed most profoundly when they come together as a community of scholars. That’s the genius of a university. Those scholars — in CMU’s case, artists, engineers, entrepreneurs, scientists, educators, and more — freely exchange their ideas. They debate them, disprove them, improve them and bat them around until whole new ideas emerge. This creative, rigorous, sometimes contentious, often messy conversation gets even better when we welcome in diverse experiences and perspectives, including visitors who may see things very differently. When those ideas are wrong, or even offensive, the remedy is not less speech, but more. Ideas are not defeated by suppression. They are defeated by better, more persuasive ideas. As leaders of universities, we must defend the right to speak, even when we find some of that speech repulsive. More than that, our job is to teach people how to speak freely and effectively. We have to train the next generation to express ideas in a climate free from disruption, intimidation and violence. We must practice it day in and day out. It’s the way universities will thrive, and it’s the way democracy will prosper.

David Finegold

CHATHAM UNIVERSITY, David Finegold

It is vital that colleges and universities stress that free speech is both a core part of the U.S. Constitution and central to the concept of academic freedom. For the good of our campuses and of the country’s future, higher education institutions must create environments where students and faculty with divergent views can respectfully debate with each other and still feel they are all welcome members of the campus community.

At Chatham, we’ve tried to foster this experience through opportunities such as our “Diversity Dialogues” series, which explores complicated issues we’re facing as a nation in an environment where individuals feel respected for sharing their thoughts and personal experiences, while deepening their knowledge and understanding of others’ perspectives. Where free speech issues on campus can become most challenging are when they come into conflict with other core values of our institutions. Chatham tackles this by striving to encourage the respect and open expression of differing opinions and beliefs, while being clear in our honor code that hate speech or personal threats are antithetical to our mission and a healthy campus community. We don’t profess to do all of this perfectly, but it’s important work and work that we undertake with great conviction, and in pursuit of our mission: “to prepare graduates to be informed and engaged citizens in their communities… able to recognize and respect diversity of culture, identity, and opinion.”

Peter Fackler

CLARION UNIVERSITY, Peter Fackler

While free speech is a fundamental principle of a liberal arts education, which itself is the basis for an open society, it is not the only principle of a liberal arts education, nor is it the static activity of speaking. Maintaining a marketplace of ideas on our campuses is essential, not only for the liberal education of our students as we prepare them to become an active citizenry, but also for the larger community which relies upon the university to deliver that marketplace. Free speech is ineffective if no one listens. Therefore, to train students to become active listeners who can express their thoughts with civility, as well as understand others’ values even if they disagree with them, are all essential to a liberal arts education. Today’s politically charged atmosphere presents more opportunities than challenges, as our students find passion in a greater variety of ideas and seek opportunities to express themselves. Rather than shrink from the challenges, we as university leaders must seize the opportunity to nurture their expressions and strengthen not only their speaking abilities, but also their listening skills, tolerance of others, and civil behavior.

Ken Gormley

DUQUESNE UNIVERSITY, Ken Gormley

One of America’s great jurists, Judge Learned Hand, told a group of university leaders in 1952: “The mutual confidence in which all else depends can be maintained only by an open mind and a brave reliance upon free discussion.” Particularly during times of political and societal stress, the marketplace of ideas is put to the test on university campuses. Yet this also produces great learning moments for students. At Duquesne University, we’ve placed a strong emphasis on civil discourse — learning to address the most difficult and controversial issues while demonstrating respect for others. In March, students packed the Duquesne ballroom to attend “Technology, Social Media and Civil Discourse.” Here, a panel of young experts from around the country — and local media professionals — spoke to students about ways to adapt to the new world of smartphones, Snapchat, Twitter and evolving technology. Despite politically charged settings, young men and women are doing a remarkable job finding ways to shore up empathy and show respect for the viewpoints of others — even those with whom they passionately disagree. Issues of free speech inevitably confront us as a nation; yet our impressive students provide the best hope of handling them thoughtfully and responsibly.

Calvin L. Troup

GENEVA COLLEGE, Calvin L. Troup

Freedom of speech has a deep history. In “City of God,” Augustine advocates freedom of speech as vital to the conduct of public affairs. The Bill of Rights treats free speech as a given, a natural right for free people to criticize the government without interference or retribution. The heart of free speech is not saying “whatever I want”; slander and libel laws are also ancient. The liberal arts educate people for public deliberation and dispute as essential to liberty, preferring persuasion over coercion. But political reins on free speech are also old and signal rejection of liberty for power politics. People silence others by force. Where does Geneva College stand? What is our practice? At Geneva, students “are not sheltered from non-​Christian viewpoints, but must become able to evaluate all knowledge critically, to gain from that which is true and to discard error.” As a private Christian college, we observe some boundaries tied to our institutional mission. Yet that same mission commits us to free speech. We invite students to engage speakers, writers, and conversations from the broad spectrum of intellectual, political and practical perspectives. Our education mission calls us to discernment, not to silence alternative viewpoints by force.

Paul J. McNulty

GROVE CITY COLLEGE, Paul J. McNulty

It’s important to distinguish between public and private higher education when considering free speech issues.Public institutions have constitutional obligations that generally do not apply to their private counterparts. While public universities are prohibited from excluding certain voices (“viewpoint discrimination”), private colleges should be guided by their mission in managing campus speech. For example, a faith-​based institution such as Grove City College may give preference to speakers who are able to guide students in the development of a values-​focused and civil approach to complex issues. In addition, we will always insist on respectfulness towards others. And because love of neighbor is a priority of our community, respectfulness towards others (regardless of the lens through which they may view the world) is critically important.

Our highest priority is to prepare students to be great citizens dedicated to the common good. This mission is consistent with the rich traditions of the liberal arts, and our students benefit from a variety of viewpoints. However, a genuinely faith-​based education is in essence a curated experience where the consideration of lasting truths is the first order of business. We endeavor to align our selection of speakers with this distinction. Finally, the reality of a private liberal arts college is that there are real limitations on time and resources. This adds to the challenge of managing the marketplace of ideas.

Sister Candace Introcaso

LA ROCHE COLLEGE, Sister Candace Introcaso

Guided by the La Roche College mission, which fosters global citizenship, we integrate liberal arts and professional education in creative ways. In the classroom, through social activities and ongoing multicultural events, we encourage our diverse campus community to engage fully and vigorously in an ongoing exchange of ideas, cultures and traditions. These opportunities allow for engagement in civil discourse about challenging issues, and for students to determine and articulate their own particular stance. Also, participants in our Study Abroad + Study USA travel program return to campus with a broadened perspective and appreciation of others’ views and lifestyles. At La Roche we continually strive to create opportunities for meaningful personal dialogue, which leads to understanding and acceptance of others’ beliefs. Our campus is home to a very diverse population across a multitude of categories. As part of our Catholic identity, we respect and celebrate that diversity.

Eric J. Barron

PENN STATE UNIVERSITY, Eric J. Barron

Our nation is experiencing a re-​emergence of hate speech and explicit bias. Significantly, hate speech has also been actuated through internet trolls and efforts to bait individuals into emotional or physical reactions. On our campuses, the reactions have been strong, as our students express considerable levels of discomfort and a real sense of vulnerability based on race, ethnicity, religion, politics and sexual orientation. Students, faculty and staff are increasingly calling for actions to silence hate speech. National surveys suggest that more students than ever are willing to give up aspects of free speech in order to create a more civil, less vulnerable environment. We are witnessing the collision between the right of free speech and our values of inclusion, and our desire to provide a successful environment for all students. We cease to be centers of learning if we cannot stand up for discussing difficult issues. We must always stand up for free speech — it is a fundamental right and ensures that our ideas find their way into the marketplace of society. As Supreme Court Justice William Douglas recognized, speech may provoke emotions and cause discomfort, but this may serve a useful purpose if it then causes us to strike out at injustices, prejudices and preconceptions. But, we must also give our students the tools to fend off those who troll and bait, to stand up for free speech by using our voices to speak out clearly and forcefully against hate as we fulfill our moral obligation to be inclusive and educate the people of our Commonwealth, the nation and beyond.

Paul Hennigan

POINT PARK UNIVERSITY, Paul Hennigan

Since 1919, when Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in Schenk v. United States that “falsely shouting fire in a crowded theatre” is not protected free speech, our nation has struggled to acknowledge and agree on the limits to free speech. The Supreme Court drew a boundary between speech that is protected and speech that is not, and did so by asking us to consider both the content and context of speech. Is the content of the speech true? If not, is it spoken in a context where it is likely to cause harm? On every college and university campus, we must repeatedly ask ourselves these questions as we face challenges to constitutional rights and the principle of free speech. As educators we must help our students learn to solve the complex problems they will face as they assume leadership positions. Future leaders must develop the skills required to consider, understand, and evaluate a variety of opinions and a wealth of information; they must be skilled at working collaboratively and at making difficult decisions. Rather than being a marketplace of ideas, higher education needs to be an incubator of leaders who can move freely through the marketplace of ideas they will encounter in their future work. We owe our students an opportunity to encounter and to learn how to address all ideas, including those they will ultimately dismiss. We cannot shy away from controversy and potential conflict in the classroom and in public lectures. Instead, we must embrace these as learning opportunities for our students — admittedly, they may be unwanted learning opportunities, but those are often the most important and impactful.

Norman W. Hipps

SAINT VINCENT COLLEGE, Norman W. Hipps

Sixty years ago, then-​Sen. John F. Kennedy spoke at our spring Honors Convocation. We believe today, as he told our students, that “… arms and science will not save us. Possession of the world’s greatest arsenal of superweapons, of the most destructive missiles, and anti-​missile missiles, of the greatest minds in science and engineering, is not enough to insure this nation’s role as leader of a free and prosperous and powerful world. We need voters and politicians capable of making the hard decisions that our time requires, leaders that can help end the domestic problems of inflation or recession, race relations, education, the decay of our cities, agriculture and health; leaders who can carry on and improve the American way of life in the hour of its greatest challenge.” More recently, we hosted political commentators Michael Steele and Donna Brazile for a discussion in 2016, challenging students to responsible engagement with ideas from across the spectrum. These examples illustrate Saint Vincent College’s commitment to a liberal education, an experience that frees one from prejudice or narrow thinking. We believe that key components of a college education are to be open and to listen respectfully to new ideas, and to understand how to critically evaluate them. We seek to instill self-​assurance in adhering to mature social and ethical values, coupled with tolerance for alternate values in others, as well as skill in making informed decisions and courage to act on them.

Mary C. Finger

SETON HILL UNIVERSITY, Mary C. Finger

College leaders must work to maintain their campuses as an open marketplace of ideas. While there are no absolutes as to how to preserve this basic tenet of higher education, there are certain principles that provide direction. Colleges and universities must stand in favor of free expression of ideas in the classroom and at the podium — even those that are controversial. As such, we work to create environments in which the “heckler’s veto” has no authority. This commitment to free expression, however, does not mean that there are no limits on that expression, and the “fighting words” doctrine provides the main exception — that those whose words incite violence or harm to another should not be allowed voice on campus. Finally, not every idea has a right to the podium. As educational institutions, we should not and cannot promote falsehoods or hoaxes under the guise of free speech. At Seton Hill University, we are working to encourage open dialogue to help our students better understand each other’s perspectives through Narrative 4, a global story exchange program designed to build empathy. Seton Hill students participate in story exchanges in an effort to open their minds and hearts to other ideas and belief systems. Even as free speech has its limits we are more likely to achieve our purpose of promoting dialogue and seeking the truth when we assume the presumption is in favor of a broad variety of thoughts and ideas and commit ourselves to honest and open interaction.

Susan Traverso

THIEL COLLEGE, Susan Traverso

Thiel College offers students a robust learning environment where free debate and open exchange are welcomed and encouraged. Our students come from a wide range of backgrounds, and they bring diverse perspectives and vibrant ideas to campus. We welcome the rich array of viewpoints our students bring to Thiel, and we create opportunities for them to test their ideas through critical thinking, inquiry and research. Thiel College advances the core value of respecting the dignity of all. The standard for our students, faculty and staff — and for any invited speakers — is that we embrace this core value even when people advance differing and sometimes controversial ideas. Our expectation is that students and guests on campus engage respectfully with others, listen to their perspectives, and thoughtfully and passionately discuss them even if they disagree. These experiences offer students opportunities to refine and broaden their own ideas and beliefs — the very goal of a liberal arts college.

John C. Knapp

WASHINGTON & JEFFERSON COLLEGE, John C. Knapp

Washington & Jefferson College was founded in the last days of the American Revolutionary War with a mission to prepare citizens capable of responsible participation in a democratic society. We are still guided by that mission and committed to the idea that a liberal education should develop leaders who can invite courageous conversations where differing views are both expressed and heard. The liberal arts college should be one place in society where civil discourse about difficult issues is valued and practiced. This is because we design our curriculum to teach students to explore ideas, seek new information and think from multiple perspectives.

Kathy Brittain Richardson

WESTMINSTER COLLEGE, Kathy Brittain Richardson

At Westminster, the marketplace of ideas elevates the rational judgment of human beings who, if exposed to a variety of ideas, can discern the truth among them. We support this marketplace through the core curriculum, foster the competencies needed within that marketplace and create a community of learning that is thoughtful about various perspectives and ideas. Helping students understand how to read, discuss and listen respectfully while engaging in critical analysis of ideas begins in their first year. Our curriculum hones students’ abilities to express, listen to and discuss various viewpoints. Students also engage in interdisciplinary coursework to illustrate the different pathways intellectual disciplines take in investigating and understanding common issues or problems. Courses across the liberal arts challenge students to explore a plethora of ideas, facts, perspectives and skills. A range of extracurricular and co-​curricular activities — speakers, films, faith exploration, service, internships, organizations — broaden exposure to different voices and ideas while offering students opportunity for reflection, discussion and engagement. Those activities include our ongoing “Civil Dialogues,” which allow students, faculty and College leaders to explore such important political and social topics as campus race relations. In these ways, Westminster continues to foster free and respectful expression of all ideas.

E. Gordon Gee

WEST VIRGINIA UNIVERSITY, E. Gordon Gee

Free and open discussion is the cornerstone of democracy, and it is also the cornerstone of a university. On campus, people come together to argue and rebut, to debate and debunk. That is how we learn. That is how we challenge our own ideas and open our minds. Unfortunately, these days, we see minds closing and civil discourse withering all around us. A university’s role is not to make people comfortable; it is to make them think. At institutions whose students have insisted that dissenting opinions be discredited, renounced or purged, university leaders bear most of the blame. As administrators, our responsibility is not to shield students from the harsh winds outside. It is to teach them how to weather strong disagreements. Yet some administrators across the nation seem to be paragons of pusillanimity rather than models of principle. I believe in West Virginia University’s students and in the university experience. Thought, reason and debate are our antidote to incivility and intolerance. Respect, empathy and connection are our rebuke to hatred, violence and discrimination. And, by setting a standard for open and forthright discourse, we are strengthening the shared principles and values that bind us as one West Virginia and one United States of America.

Debra Townsley

WHEELING JESUIT UNIVERSITY, Debra Townsley

Free speech” on college campuses is currently a hotly debated point. The past several years have seen no shortage of campus or community protests regarding the invitation of this-​or-​that firebrand or ideologue to speak. Colleges and universities should promote academic freedom — that is, the freedom to seek knowledge based on research and study and to discuss ideas freely with colleagues. Educational institutions should also present two sides to topics so that students can develop a framework to formulate their own opinions and to make their own decisions. At my university, Wheeling Jesuit, we focus on eloquentia perfecta, a Jesuit rhetorical tradition designed to train a young man or woman to write well for the common good. By viewing free speech through the lens of academic freedom and eloquentia perfecta, a campus becomes a safe place for students, faculty and staff to have informed conversations about the most critical issues of our time.


PQ Staff

Questions or corrections? Contact us at .

Explore Related Stories:

Other stories in this category: « Firing on All Cylinders
Close Window Welcome to Pittsburgh Quarterly
Keep up with the latest

Sign up for our Newsletter, Pittsburgh Quarterly This Week.

We’ll keep in touch, but only when we think there’s something worth sharing. To receive exclusive Pittsburgh Quarterly news and stories, please fill out the form below. Be sure to check your email for a link to confirm your subscription!

View past newsletters here.

Don’t miss a story! Sign up for our newsletter to receive award-​winning journalism in your inbox.

Please let us know your name.
Invalid Input
Please let us know your email address.
Invalid Input