Free speech on campus: Where freedoms collide

Story and photos by Carleigh Oeth

Video by Kara Jenness

The First Amendment is laid in the groundwork of our democracy. For journalists, it is the lifeblood that allows us to fulfill our purpose. But while free speech continues to be thoroughly debated on a national level — consider President Donald Trump’s “running war against the media” — defining standards on a university campus is a relatively new endeavor.

It’s something the University of Oregon and its School of Journalism and Communication have been grappling with a lot this year, however. In February, the SOJC partnered with the UO School of Law and the Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics to bring Geoffrey Stone, the Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, to campus to give a lecture on the role of free speech in academia.

“Universities have struggled to maintain, and even to define, a concept of academic freedom,” Stone said. “This is a new thing; universities hadn’t thought about this very much because it was not an issue that was there before.”

Geoffrey Stone,  Professor at the University of Chicago

Stone’s talk, titled “Free Speech: A Challenge for Our Times,” could not have been more timely. A few days after his lecture, UO made the list of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s10 worst colleges for free speech.”

UO’s place on the list largely reflects the aftermath of a controversial statement of expression: School of Law Professor Nancy Shurtz’s blackface Halloween costume, which resulted in her suspension.

“I think too often university administrators have yielded to the demands of students rather than stood up to them and explain that there are better ways to responding to ideas that you don’t like than censorship,” Stone said.

Shurtz’s off-campus activity, while undoubtedly controversial, sparked a valuable conversation for the rest of UO’s campus community regarding our First Amendment rights.

Does censorship have a place on campus?

Freedom of speech and the role censorship should play are not clearly defined for universities — at least not yet. But Juan-Carlos Molleda, Edwin L. Artzt Dean of the SOJC, describes some forms of censorship as a responsibility to society.

“Especially for established institutions, some censorship is more important because of the amplification of the consequences,” Molleda said. “When you have the power of amplification — meaning you are a university, you are a president, you are a dean, etc. — you are heard by a large number of individuals.”

Contrary to the popular image of college students in opposition to censorship, in this matter, students are one of the primary moving forces speaking out in favor of university measures to limit some forms of speech.

“It’s interesting to ask why students of this generation are responding to freedom of speech in the way that they are,” Stone said. “I think [they are] more sensitive to speech that they find offensive, and more insistent on preventing that speech because it makes them uncomfortable.”

Stone’s talk, “Free Speech: A Challenge for Our Times"

What is a university’s responsibility to its students?

According to Stone, a university must enable its students with the power of inquiry and the ability to deal effectively with controversial issues without resorting to censorship. Stone’s lecture reflected his strong belief in bringing sensitive issues to light so that healthy, constructive conversation can happen.

“My own view is that to shield students from ideas that they find offensive is failing to meet our responsibilities to students,” Stone said. “The real world will not shield them.”

The “real world” is something Javier Borelli, the president of Buenos Aires newspaper Tiempo Argentino, understands firsthand. Borelli visited the SOJC in November to tell the story of how 16 gang members broke into his newsroom and “smashed computers, ripped wires out of the walls and erected barricades.” It goes without saying that the attack compromised the newspaper’s ability to exercise free speech and to share information with the public.

Bringing speakers like Borelli to campus is one step toward raising awareness about the issue of forced censorship around the world. Although the attack occurred over 6,000 miles away, it highlights the significance of free speech as well as the reality that it can be taken away.

Like Stone, Molleda believes that it is a university’s responsibility to prepare students for the complex world outside of college. He adds, however, that having a safe space for students to express themselves and their ideas without fear of being shut down is key to their current and future success.

“The most important gift we can give you is the gift of a critical mind, the gift of a mind to see different perspectives — a mind that is inquisitive,” Molleda said. “The best we can do is to motivate and encourage open discussions and debates.”

What is a student’s role in protecting free speech?

“I think many students today are not thinking carefully about the dangers to them of legitimizing censorship, in the sense that it opens the door for people to censor them,” Stone said. “It’s important that people who feel strongly are able to be adamant and vigorous, but there should also be values of civility and mutual respect.”

In many ways, the UO campus is a drawing board for students. It is the place they seek growth, knowledge and acceptance among peers and faculty. Where it gets complicated, however, is at the collision point between two freedoms: Students want to feel safe in this environment and not threatened by others’ speech that they find offensive. But they also want their own ideas and beliefs to be heard by those around them.

For now, the conversation is ongoing. “A student’s responsibility is to be serious about their expression. I really like students to express their beliefs,” Molleda said. “Sometimes ideas collide.… I think this is the beauty of this environment.”

Carleigh Oeth is a senior studying journalism in the SOJC. She is from Portland, Oregon, where she held an editorial internship with the city’s local arts magazine, Artslandia, during the summer of 2016. This is her first year as a part of the SOJC’s communications team, and she is also working as an associate editor for the Daily Emerald. You can view some of her work on her online portfolio and visit her on Instagram @carleighoeth.