Free speech is the hallmark of democracy, as the free exchange of ideas is the only means by which the democratic process can flourish. This is the position of the University of Chicago and (how many?) others. UC President Hannah Gray observed “that education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think.” Former UC President Robert Hutchins said the “cure” for ideas one opposes “lies through open discussion rather than through inhibition.” Thomas Sowell’s recent column gives a rousing defense of free speech. How do we square these lofty ideals with the reality of the University of Missouri, where the students and the football team engineered the resignation of the president; and Tulane University, where (writes student Olivia Worley to The Advocate) President Michael Fitts was concerned about an offensive posting, and she insinuates that had he lacked such concern that he risked receiving the UM treatment. Certainly racism is to be deplored, discussed in all its aspects, understood and defined in free, open forums, inclusive of diverse opinions, civil discourse, without threats of violence, informing appropriate action to minimize it.
However, Worley casts a wide net, tasking Tulane to be a virtual nanny to the students, preventing them from receiving or committing perceived “disrespect,” failing to “uphold school ideals” and “abusing” free speech on the Internet. This is not only impossible to achieve, it is not even desirable. The university has a duty to offer education that will prepare students to understand and function in the adult world, in a physically safe environment, in an open intellectual atmosphere, where diverse opinions are welcomed, and informed discussion the means of reaching conclusions.
The university’s problem is that though the duty is clear, the path is neither straight nor narrow, and is essentially without a guaranteed game plan.
While Worley is apparently clueless as to both the meaning and the value of free speech, she is right about one thing: The Internet (not to mention the world) is indeed dangerous, but again cannot be dealt with by prohibiting or punishing access. I fear for our country if today’s young people are not prepared to understand the dangers we face, and not strongly grounded in the virtues of our core American values.
I have no firsthand knowledge of the offensive Internet posting, or the Tulane response, and my comments only apply to the expressed opinions of Worley, and my perception of her knowledge about and opinion of free speech.
I write also as an admirer and graduate of both UC and Tulane.