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Limits on free speech in an era of censorship

by Chelsea A. Blackburn Cohen | Oct 4, 2017

Chelsea A. Blackburn Cohen is a ​doctoral ​candidate in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She also works as a ​project ​assistant for the Center for Research on College to Workforce Transitions at the Wisconsin Center for Educational Research.

Chelsea Blackburn CohenWe live in a world where we practice censorship daily. In an era where we lament the political gridlock of a two-party system that seems to be failing us, more often than not we mimic the tendencies of that system.

And why not? Many would agree that when they hear, witness, or read an ideological sentiment that runs strictly counter to their own, it can seem like a moment of personal activism to shut these voices out. I can think of countless situations in which I eliminated perspectives from my world that I found to be abhorrent, or sought to maintain relationships only with people who shared similar worldviews.

There are many reasons why this is problematic, but worth consideration are the ways in which we measure up our world and how an inaccurate understanding of it can be dangerous.

Both free speech and activism are strongholds of U.S. pride, culture, and its founding ideas. Lately, these ideas have been subjects for extremely tumultuous debates​ -- from the stadium fields of the National Football League, to the streets of Charlottesville, to college campuses from UC Berkeley to the University of Washington -- that have incited violence and hate.

These and other events have cast a spotlight on the difficulty of distinguishing free speech from hate speech. I am empathetic in particular to the pressures faced by colleges and universities in making these determinations. Universities have a responsibility to cultivate and maintain a respectful, inclusive, and safe environment both for their students and for the greater learning communities on which they thrive. Additionally, universities have played a vital role in society preparing people to wrestle with difficult ideas, expand their worldviews, and challenge their previous ways of thinking, all in effort to improve society and expand our understanding of it.

Balancing these responsibilities is no easy task.

I don’t need to point out that the political climate in the United States has dramatically shifted from where it was a few years ago. But for those who might argue that what is occurring on university campuses across the country is nothing new​ -- that it is emblematic of the Vietnam War era protests, for example -- consider the following.

​Just last month, Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed reported on two noteworthy events: Harvard University disinvited Chelsea Manning from participating in a week-long speaking engagement, while the seminary affiliated with the Catholic University of America disinvited speaker Father Martin, who most recently authored a book advocating for positive ways the Roman Catholic Church might interact with gay and lesbian Catholics.

What makes these cases so noteworthy isn’t that they represent a departure from disinvitations and protests against right-wing speakers, such as Milo Yiannopoulos, nor that leftist speakers are being turned away from institutions that are often criticized from the right as inculcating liberal values. Rather, revoking these speaking engagements marks a drastic turn in both cases.

For Harvard, the criticisms leading to the rescinded invitation centered on the concern that Harvard was bestowing an honor to someone who had violated the law, resulting in calls for Harvard to lose its federal funding. As Jaschik (2017) reported, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) pointed out that Harvard​ -- among many other prestigious institutions -- have long invited controversial speakers to campus, some of whom were considered war criminals, for example.

The seminary’s case was even more illuminating. While Father Martin’s invitation was revoked after the seminary began facing increasing negative feedback about the invitation, the president of the Catholic University of America later issued a statement denouncing the decision and pointing out that Father Martin had actually been invited​​, and spoke, to ​the campus the year prior.

These cases speak volumes about a change occurring not just on our campuses per se, but across and within our nation as a whole.

Throughout my years of higher education study and research within the School of Education at UW–Madison, I’ve come to observe that throughout history, colleges and universities often reflect prevalent sentiments, developments, and tensions throughout the country. Likewise, many academics have observed that the college campus is a microcosm of our greater society.

This has become particularly evident through my doctoral research examining the experiences and observations of academics who have been forced to flee their home countries​ -- including Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia and Africa -- because of the ideological and political implications of their work. Though their hosting appointments at U.S. institutions afford them greater academic freedom, there is an air of apprehension about the changing winds. And while their origins and circumstances vary greatly, these scholars all have one thing in common: their government’s impingement on the freedom of ideas​ -- as many would argue is the core function of higher education institutions generally​ -- quickly leaks onto the campus and leads to an oppression so vast it is hard to describe or measure. But this is where it starts.

That is why we need to connect the dots when news agencies report on the devastating collections of hurricanes, earthquakes, and tropical storms throughout India and North and Central America but specifically censor the term “climate change,” or when individuals are assigned to lead federal agencies whose work runs counter to their established views.

That is why we need to carefully evaluate how these changes in society are being reflected on our campuses and how our governing boards and students and academic communities are responding to and understanding them. That is why we need open and fearless dialogue about these events, as a community of diverse individuals with often conflicting ideas. That is why we need to be conscious of our own practice of censorship and challenge our motives for and the repercussions of censoring. We must carefully evaluate the cost of both free speech and censorship, and the implications of our role in either.

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  1. Clif Conrad
    A breathtakingly thoughtful commentary ending in a meaningful and powerful recommendation: time for "open and fearless dialogues about these events."

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