Free exchange of ideas

10-25-2007

In recent weeks, there have been incidents on campus that once again compel us to look at the issues of free speech and how we as a campus community engage with one another in ways that respect the views of multiple groups and individuals. I’ve written about this topic often because it is at the heart of academic freedom and the notion that a university should be an open marketplace for the free exchange of ideas. I’m writing again today because recent acts on campus challenge these ideals and seek to exert the rights of free speech for some while prohibiting the rights of others.

There are individuals who speak at campus events whose rhetoric and ideas I find reprehensible, and although I may not appreciate their positions, I do respect their right to share their views. The more extreme the view, in either direction, the more it tests us. And, it is certainly true that it is harder to avoid behaviors that compromise the marketplace of ideas when we are deeply offended. We must, however, collectively deny inappropriate behavior in all forms in order to protect the rights we all hold dear.

Although we may disagree with one another’s positions, we must respect the rights of individuals to express their positions without fear of intimidation and/or physical harm. Michigan State University’s philosophy on campus dissent is a belief that the rights guaranteed in the First and Fourteenth amendments of the Constitution must be protected. Acts intended to prohibit the free speech rights of any individual or group, such as destroying informational materials, preventing access to an event, or shouting down a speaker do not support this philosophy and undermine our efforts to encourage robust intellectual discourse.

There are constructive ways, however, to express disagreement with the views or ideas of a particular group or individual that respect the rights of everyone. Sponsoring an event that highlights an opposing view or peacefully protesting at an event by simply and silently walking out are two excellent examples of recent campus “protests.”

The university has worked for decades to establish a community consensus on the scope of intellectually productive and constitutionally protected dissent, and to distinguish it from impermissible disruption. Destructive and intimidating behavior not only threatens the safety of our community but inhibits opportunities for productive civil engagement.

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