LD Jan/Feb ’17 – Protected speech on campus

Resolved: Public colleges and universities in the United States ought not restrict any constitutionally protected speech.

Of most use will be the Education ā€“ College folder, updated Monday. There s also a Free Speech folder in the LD-Values folder that covers the broader issue. Examples will matter a lot for this topic – to both justify and destroy cases.

Things to keep in mind:

Who are we talking about? Students? Professors/instructors? Administration/staff? Third-parties (say, guest speakers)? Do they all have equal rights/protections under the resolution? And does a campus situation involve a different set of rules than public space at large? If the purpose of a college/university is to provide services to students (classes being the most obvious example), what is the institution’s responsibility to its clients? If a campus can restrict access to its facilities for institutional reasons, can it restrict other things, like speech, for the same reasons? Campuses have ‘protected classes’ of people (like LGBT, not class in the sense of courses); what responsibilities does a university assume for people in those protected classes? What about student privacy rules?

Free speech is a pretty absolute right in America; exceptions like yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater are minimal. It stems, to steal a comment from a story I read long ago, from the position that true freedom is the right to be whatever kind of fool you want to be. That is, in essence, why the ACLU defended the right of neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois (a Chicago suburb that had a large number of Jewish residents and Holocaust survivors at the time) many decades ago.

With that, though, goes the concept of freedom, not license. A.S. Neill, the former head of the Summerhill free school in England, wrote a book with that title: Freedom, Not License. Early in the book he gives an example: Students at Summerhill were free to attend class, or not, as they wished – but they were not free to play a musical instrument right outside the window of someone who was trying to study/learn. It’s the old adage that you’re free to spin around with your arms outstretched – but that freedom becomes license if you’re a tight enough space where doing so hits the people around you. Key to this topic will be the question of whether specific speech is an expression of freedom, or a case of behavioral license. (What’s the boundary line between speech and behavior?)

An article on a different topic ended with a thought that may be useful here, and one that will help your case stick in the judge’s mind – as the Rolling Stones said, you can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need. If trigger warnings, say, are used to limit speech, then freeing professors from those restrictions would force students to face the type of uncomfortable situations they’ll face in the real world – would that be a case of not getting what you want, but getting what you need? The opposite side of the coin can use the same argument. Consider the article below:

Milo Yiannopoulos, who will speak at CU Boulder, has brought controversy to colleges

It details incidents in which the speaker, at previous talks, singled out a student (in what, at CU, would be a ‘protected class’) and a professor for ridicule and humiliation. Is that free speech, or license? If the latter, and therefore limited, would that also be a case of not getting what you want, but getting what you need? Should the speaker be limited in what he’s permitted to say, or even be barred from speaking?

Consider: are the examples you’re using from a public university? If not, then your opponent gets to point that out. Will that undercut your argument? Should you pre-empt that response by asking how such a situation would be handled at a public university? Can you use the non-public argument to attack opponents’ examples?

Examples to look for (and ponder) from the Education – College folder: in the January folder there are articles on the U-Missouri case, the Sandy Hook denier who was fired, and anti-Semitism at Oberlin. The November folder has several articles of interest – look for the Summers article, the ‘suck it up’ (Iowa) article, the Yale Dean article, and the Berry (students won’t melt) article. December has the ‘we have the right to exist’ article on white supremacists on campus, the Kentucky/Beach Boys article, and the Volokh Oregon article. These are hardly all that are available; don’t hesitate to look in the 2015 and earlier folders.

Sidebar: Want to take the round sideways? Several public colleges in the United States have an overseas campus. Look for the Bogos article for speech limits at such a campus. Would the topic apply to an overseas campus of a public university in the United States?


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