Educational free speech analyzed at BB&T Colloquium

Photo courtesy of the Ed Snider Center

A colloquium hosted by the University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business on Tuesday discussed the current state of educational free speech in terms of administrative regulation, collective and individual identity, mental health and activism.

At the BB&T-sponsored event held in Van Munching Hall’s Frank Auditorium – called “Assault in the Ivory Tower on the Market for Ideas” – Rajshree Agarwal, director of the business school’s Ed Snider Center, shared statistics from a study of free speech on campus to relate the issues discussed to this university.

“Free speech is protected by the Constitution,” Agarwal said, “but both on campus and elsewhere, there is a sense of threat.”

Of the 57 respondents, 81 percent of students said they agree or strongly agree that they find value in other people’s opinions different from their own, Agarwal said.

Some students see a lack of tolerance of differing opinions regarding topics such as politics, especially with the presidential election approaching.

“When people talk about politics, they are typically close-minded and lack civility,” freshman biological sciences major Adam Kristick said. “People usually care more about their own political opinions than others.”

Greg Lukianoff, President and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), spoke of specific cases of repressed free speech seen on college campuses in recent years.

The online version of the Winter 2014 edition of Atrium, a Northwestern University publication, was censored by university administration, Lukianoff said. The cover of the issue featured an image of a topless woman who underwent a double mastectomy and tattooed her chest.

“If you see someone censoring saying they’re doing so with the best intentions, always be suspicious,” Lukianoff said.

A production of Washington State University student Chris Lee’s satirical play, Passion of the Musical, was interrupted by a group of students organized by administrators in April 2005, Lukianoff said. University officials argued that the the taunting was an exercise of students’ free speech rights, despite the fact that threats are not a protected form of speech.

The rule of thumb should be to “accept the norms of the most squeamish person in the room,” Lukianoff said.

Fifty percent of student survey respondents said they disagree or strongly disagree with the idea that words are a form of violence and should be controlled by campus officials, Rajshree said.

Trigger warnings and microaggressions can be observed in classroom settings. Seventy percent of students surveyed, however, said they disagree or strongly disagree that college students have the right not to be exposed in class to words or ideas that offend them.

Lukianoff said it is important that students do not play it safe by always talking to people with the same views, because by “not increasing discussions across lines of differences, we retreat back to our echo chambers.”

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