In the culmination of a year-and-a-half process, Stetson University this week issued a statement firmly in defense of academic freedom and free, diverse and controversial expression on campus. Stetson is the 59th university to follow in the steps of the University of Chicago’s recently released “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression.”
“We understand that this commitment to free expression necessarily opens our community to discomfort and argumentation,” the statement reads. “However, we believe that exposure to challenging views, even those viewed by some as offensive, is an important part of personal growth and education. The best insights are achieved through dialogue which is civil, intellectual, and respectful of differing views. Nevertheless, without protection for expression that might be deemed objectionable, offensive, or challenging, free expression as a value has little meaning. Therefore, perceptions of incivility should not be used as justification to impinge upon the rights of free expression of our community.”
Conversations about race, politics and other issues have always been occasional flashpoints in the debate over free speech on some college campuses. More recently, the freedom to speak of some speakers, particularly controversial, far-right speakers such as the white supremacist Richard Spencer at the University of Florida in the summer of 2017, has at times been questioned–or obstructed–by students who find such appearances objectionable. (Organizations that track academic freedom include the American Association of University Professors, the Modern Language Association’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Professional Rights and Responsibilities, and FIRE.)
The controversies, while real, can be overblown: the vast majority of speakers on most campuses have free rein. But controversies continue to catch a disproportionate amount of attention, stoked in part extremism on both sides of the spectrum–left-wing extremism that seeks to redefine the limits of speech with the imposition of such things as “safe zones” or “free-speech zones” and on the other side, by talk radio and the right-wing press that play up the slightest controversy as shattering threats to the First Amendment or, more significantly, last Thursday’s executive order by President Trump on campus free expression.
Trump said that he would issue the executive order “requiring colleges and universities to support free speech if they want federal research dollars.” His statement came during the Conservative Political Action Conference. “Under the guise of speech codes, safe spaces, and trigger warnings,” Trump said on Thursday, “these universities have tried to restrict free thought, impose total conformity, and shut down the voices of great young Americans like those here today. All of that changes starting right now.” Critics see the move as disingenuous from a president who has called the press the “enemy of the people” and emboldened authoritarian leaders across the globe to repress free expression, social media and the press through “fake news” attacks.
“President Trump’s executive order seems to do little procedurally, but is troubling in that it serves a broader goal of attempting to discredit higher education,” Julie Schmid, the American Association of University Professors’s executive director, said. “Like the president’s attacks on other perceived enemies, whether they be journalists, scientists, or academic institutions, and like other attacks on higher education spearheaded by far right-wing organizations like Turning Point USA, the order seems largely designed to undermine the public trust.” She added, “the executive order itself is a solution in search of a problem–as the order notes, colleges and universities already have policies protecting free expression on campus, and, in the case of public institutions, are bound by the First Amendment.”
Stetson is a private university. In December 2017, Stetson University President Wendy B. Libby convened a task force to develop a university statement affirming academic freedom and civil discourse. After more than a year of gathering input from students, faculty and staff, and meetings to discuss the issues, the task force presented the Statement of Principles of Free Expression to Stetson’s Board of Trustees, which unanimously approved it.
“This statement puts us out in front of many other colleges and universities in both principle and practice,” said Eric Kurlander, a history professor who presented the statement to trustees with Sven Smith, an assistant professor of sociology, and Kevin Winchell, associate director of Stetson’s Center for Community Engagement.
“If you’ve been following some of the national news, there are many campuses that have really struggled with navigating these challenging conversations about race or religion or politics or privilege,” Winchell said. “Students often feel like they’re silenced or marginalized because they don’t know how to approach these challenging conversations, but they really want to talk about them because they care about these issues.”
The university’s statement addresses that: “Stetson University supports in particular the rights of individuals, especially those of marginalized groups, to express views that may not comport with the status quo.”
“We greatly appreciate the work and time Eric, Sven and Kevin put into this, as well as Peter Lake and others at the College of Law,” said Libby. “It is extremely important to the entire Stetson community, but it was certainly not easy, and the final statement is a reflection of the thoughtful discussions they have had.”
Members of the Stetson task force say the university has an academic mission and a civic responsibility to teach students how to engage in challenging conversations about race, religion, politics, gender, class and privilege — with civility. “It’s not just a contract with our students. It’s also a contract with our society and with our democracy,” Winchell said at a recent staff meeting on the DeLand, Florida, campus. “We have a civic — almost moral — responsibility to ensure we’re inculcating these habits of citizenship.”
But as noted above, the statement does not allow civility to be an excuse for suppressing speech.
“We adhere to the principle that debate and dialogue should not be suppressed because some members of our University community or individuals outside the University consider such views to be politically harmful, offensive, politically incorrect, or pernicious,” the statement reads. “Expressed views are open to criticism, debate, and condemnation. Open debate and dialogue is a natural part of the marketplace of ideas. Hence, attempts to suppress or punish protected expression or speakers are anathema to the free expression necessary for intellectual and cultural growth. Teaching our members how to strategically, intellectually, and collegially debate challenging ideas is part of the mission of our University.”
Even before the statement received final approval from the Board of Trustees, Lake, professor of law and a member of the task force, was already experiencing the benefits of such a document. Lake invited Ken Starr, author of the Starr report on President Clinton’s sexual dalliances in the White House, to be the guest speaker at Stetson’s annual National Conference on Law and Higher Education in Clearwater Beach.
“There were some folks outside the College of Law who criticized that choice and I felt that the Statement supported my institution to offer broad programming with a variety of ideas,” Lake said. “Having a statement like that is a platform for discussions about bringing more diverse speakers and having a broader conversation with civil boundaries associated with it.”
The full statement is below.