Posted on May 11, 2016

University of Minnesota’s Proposed Free Speech Protections Would Be “The Most Comprehensive to Date”

Dale Carpenter, Washington Post, May 10, 2016

Last week the University of Minnesota Senate began to take up the issue of free speech on campus. No action was taken, but several students showed up to speak against a proposed “core principles” statement provisionally approved by the university’s top faculty committee. The statement condemns efforts to shout down controversial speakers and declares free speech paramount to other values like maintaining a positive campus “climate.” During the meeting, one faculty member also called for “discursive affirmative action” to correct perceived imbalances of power and influence among speakers, a concept explicitly rejected by the core principles draft. The Senate will likely consider the matter again this fall.

An article published this morning in Inside Higher Ed contains the most complete overview yet of the effort to protect free speech at the University of Minnesota and of the resistance it’s encountering–mostly from some student groups. (Readers should be aware that I’ve been directly involved in the efforts to protect free speech at Minnesota.) From the article:

The University of Minnesota at Twin Cities is considering a set of statements on free speech that, if passed, could be the strongest such affirmation seen on any campus. Yet the statements’ future is uncertain, given concerns–especially those from students–about free speech being “paramount” to other values. At the same time, it’s unclear whether free expression can truly be protected without declaring it paramount.

“Ideas are the lifeblood of a free society and universities are its beating heart,” reads a statement passed by a majority of members of the powerful Faculty Consultative Committee and now under debate before the Faculty Senate. “If freedom of speech is undermined on a university campus, it is not safe anywhere. The University of Minnesota resolves that the freedom of speech is, and will always be, safe at this institution.”

The statement says that embracing free speech involves four core principles, including that a public university “must be absolutely committed to protecting free speech, both for constitutional and academic reasons.” The university must accordingly guarantee every member of its community “liberty to express ideas regardless of viewpoint,” and officials “must neither implicitly nor explicitly suppress, punish or regulate protected speech because of its content. . . . No member of the university community has the right to prevent or disrupt expression.”

Free speech includes protections for speech that some find “offensive, uncivil or even hateful,” according to the statement, and it can’t be regulated “on the ground that some speakers are thought to have more power or more access to the mediums of speech than others.” And while the university encourages respectful dialogue and understands that the “shock, hurt and anger experienced by the targets of malevolent speech may undermine the maintenance of a campus climate that welcomes all and fosters equity and diversity,” it says, “no word is so blasphemous or offensive it cannot be uttered” at a public university.

The article notes several pending proposals for reform to protect speech on campus, including the appointment of a free speech advocate to review proposed disciplinary action involving speech:

“In addition to those principles, the consultative committee late last month unanimously approved for further consideration a series of proposed actions. “It is painfully obvious that many members of the university community do not understand or appreciate the freedom of expression,” that document says, recommending that the proposed core principles be widely published, including in orientation materials. The university also should encourage a “climate of respectful debate,” such as by intensifying efforts to sponsor structured debates about controversial topics.

Relatedly, the university must “vigorously protect” when disruption is anticipated or occurs, according to the document. It defines “serious disruption” as chanting, persistent heckling or other noisy demonstrations that make it difficult or impossible for an audience to hear what a speaker is saying. It notes that disruption does not include peaceful protest outside an event, holding signs or wearing armbands in opposition of an event or speaker, or asking “critical questions” during a planned question-and-answer period.

Most notably, the actions document proposes the creation of a free speech “advocate” or watchdog charged with “ensuring freedom of expression is respected and protected during any investigation” involving free speech issues on campus. That role could be assigned to an independent officer or a person or committee within the existing faculty governance structure.

The problem, according to the document, is that investigations by various university offices, including equal opportunity and human resources, sometimes involve free speech. Yet such offices focus on “cleansing public discussion so that it is inoffensive” and promoting inclusivity, rather than affirming free speech. The unfortunate effect, the proposed policy says, ‘is to create an imbalance by which protected speech is subordinated to other values. But speech may not be curtailed simply because it is offensive.'”