An open marketplace for the free exchange of ideas

03-03-2008

I have written and spoken often over the past year about the university’s commitment to free speech and the First Amendment, most recently in response to concerns about controversial speakers and events on campus last fall. I feel compelled to write again because of the ongoing actions of groups and individuals to intimidate, threaten, and ridicule fellow members of the MSU community, all under the banner of free speech.

I am particularly concerned about the number of students who have reported recently that they feel threatened and intimidated on our campus because of their political beliefs, racial or ethnic identity, sexual orientation, or religious practices. Just last week, members of ASMSU received death threats prior to a meeting they held to discuss a bill related to free speech (reported in the State News, February 24, 2008). No matter the reason, threats of violence and attempts to silence those with whom we disagree by ridicule or humiliation are antithetical to MSU’s core values, and such threats have no place in an academic community.

I have said many times that a university should be an open marketplace for the free exchange of ideas. This in no way implies that we will not encounter ideas that make us uncomfortable or individuals whose views we find personally offensive. As I have said before, our freedom to impart our views is assured only if we recognize the equal freedom of others to impart theirs, even when—especially when—those views are at odds with our own. Attempting to suppress the free speech rights of any individual or group, especially by means that are intended to cause individuals to feel unsafe, undermines our efforts to encourage robust intellectual discourse.

We live in an increasingly violent world, as evidenced a few weeks ago in the shootings on the campus of Northern Illinois University. I’m sure none of us will forget the grief and horror we felt when hearing about this and other incidents of campus violence over the past year because it hits too close to home. A college campus should be a safe place—physically and intellectually—where learners and seekers come to expand their minds, dream big dreams, and discern and refine their beliefs about the world around them. A university is a place where all forms of diversity should be welcomed and respected and where everyone should be able to express their opinions and ideas.

Free speech is at the heart of academic freedom and is something we take very seriously at Michigan State. I encourage individuals and groups to exercise their right to free speech in ways that enhance the intellectual discourse rather than using the protections of the First Amendment to attempt to silence the voices of others. Where the exchange or exploration of ideas turns into personal attacks or threats meant to intimidate or frighten others, any value gained by the discourse is lost. As we strive to educate the next generation of the world’s leaders, we must continue to keep an open dialogue about the challenges that prevent the free and safe expression of ideas on our campus and seek solutions that honor and respect the individual rights of every member of this community.

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