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Professors Talk Free Speech on College Campuses

Recently, the Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy hosted a panel event at the University of Pennsylvania to discuss free speech on college campuses. The panel was composed of speakers Professor Keith E. Whittington of Princeton University and Professor Sigal Ben-Porath of the University of Pennsylvania as well as discussant George Ciccariello-Maher, a former Associate Professor of Drexel University.

The discussion began with Professor Whittington explaining how the purpose of universities is to “advance and communicate human knowledge” and, as such, students and faculty should be exploring controversial ideas even in cases where it may lead to “dead ends.”

Further, he advocated for bringing in controversial speakers to campus on the basis that “students ought to be able to work through controversial ideas as they prepare themselves to be citizens.” However, he nuanced this point by explaining that, while controversial speakers have a certain benefit, this does not apply to speakers who are simply provocateurs and not being serious. He denounced the practice of bringing in speakers “simply because they are a thumb in the eye of your opponents” and attributed this practice to “students on the right.”

With regard to the level of free speech university faculty should have in the public sphere (such as in blogs, op-eds, and social media), he explained that universities shouldn’t be in the “business of censuring” and that it is important for professors to be able to express themselves and contribute to the public sphere.

Following Professor Whittington, Professor Ben-Porath opened her talk by saying she agreed with everything Professor Whittington had said, but she wanted to situate free speech in a broader social context, not just in the purpose of a university. She believes promoting free speech requires a “broader commitment than maintaining the general conditions of free speech.” Rather than simply allowing everyone to speak freely, she believes free speech entails proactively creating conditions where everyone’s speech can be free “in effect.” By “in effect,” she was referring to the ability of everyone’s speech to be heard in an equally valid sense.

She then explored the issue of where to draw the line when it comes to determining what counts as valuable speech for the purpose of advancing knowledge. She believes the answer to this is “tied to the specific campus community in question” and that faculty on campus “need to learn to listen to students.” She used the recent example of the Princeton professor who had to cancel his course on free speech this semester after using a racially insensitive word in his academic lecture on free speech and hate speech. She believes that where you draw the line in determining what can or cannot be discussed in certain settings (even academic) depends on the “power differentials” in your environment.

Following the two speakers was controversial discussant George Ciccariello-Maher. He started by criticizing universities for their trend towards treating faculty as disposable labor and not tenuring as many people. In the following question and answer section, both the speakers agreed with Mr. Ciccariello-Maher that this treatment of faculty by universities has been harmful to professors and their ability to contribute to the public realm like every other citizen.

Additionally, Mr. Ciccariello-Maher criticized the legitimacy of certain speakers on the basis that they would not normally be invited to speak at events if, in some cases, a single powerful donor had not chosen to fund them. Examples he gave of such speakers would be feminist Camille Paglia whom he described as “odious” and political commentator Milo Yiannopoulos whom he tied to white-supremacy and anti-semitism.

Some of the most interesting discussion came from the question and answer portion following the opening talks. The first question regarded how to decide whether to engage in a public debate or panel with someone you believe to be wrong and not taking the topic seriously. In order to make the question clearer, Milo Yiannopoulos was brought up again as a potential example.

Mr. Ciccariello-Maher stated there were very few people with whom he would not engage with in order to not legitimize their views, and among these would be Milo and white supremacists. Additionally, Professor Whittington explained how he only sees the benefit of engaging with someone if you have reason to believe they are taking it seriously and that something could come out of the discussion. However, he too seemed to reject Milo by labeling all the speakers who were listed as a part of Milo’s “Free Speech Week” at Berkeley as “a bunch of knuckleheads.”

Further, both Professor Whittington and Mr. Ciccariello-Maher saw a limit to the extent debate could help determine the legitimacy of ideas. They believe that, at a certain point, discussion is no longer helpful and some people are not worth engaging. Professor Ben-Porath described the importance of the type and structure of the event when controversial speakers are invited. Whether it is an open debate or a critical interview and whether students are forced to listen or can choose to attend determines the acceptability of the speaker’s presence on campus.

Panelists were also asked about recent free speech cases at Penn regarding Professor Amy Wax and former TA Stephanie McKellop. This was the only point during the panel where moderator and Penn School of Arts and Sciences Dean for the Social Sciences, Roger Smith, chose to contribute to the discussion. He remarked that the two situations “raised my awareness of both the external pressures on the university to suppress expression and the fact that within the university as a whole there were some internal voices that were more sympathetic to that route than I think should have been the case.”

One of the final questions came from a Penn faculty member who described how almost all his fellow coworkers at Penn hold very liberal ideologies and, following the election of President Trump, he feels “there is a closed-mindedness at the university” and that he has to keep his political opinions to himself, otherwise it would “be detrimental” to his career advancement at Penn.

In response to this question, Professor Beth-Porath described how she too felt at times that she had to withhold her liberal views when around some of her family members. Additionally, she acknowledged that, as a University, this is a “very difficult issue that we are trying to deal with, but are only successful in a very limited way.”

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