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New York University’s Vice Provost Ulrich Baer, recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about the issue of free speech on college campuses around the country. In it Baer states that “The idea of freedom of speech does not mean a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks”. This statement has brought about criticism from many people, especially those from the right , and in a Forbes Magazine response, Tom Lindsay stated that the NYU administrator’s statement was straight up “Orwellian”. In my opinion, I believe free speech is a fundamental value of a liberal and open society. The current attack on free speech coming from many on the left and right is one that is dangerous to tolerance and dialogue in academia.
Free speech is a fundamental value of a liberal and open society.
New York University professor Jonathan Haidt in his award winning book A Righteous Mind, discusses how our society is facing the troubling reality of a deep polarization, which is manifested in the lack of dialogue and tendency towards anger and violence between the modern left and right on college campuses. What has happened is that both the left and right have created their own cultures in which outside discussion and debate is shut out in favor of an eco-chamber of the same ideals.
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We can find this troubling reality on many college campuses such as UC Berkeley, where a series of violent clashes occurred between many far left people and Trump supporters. It is clear that this issue is not unique to one side or the other, while many on the right claim to support free speech, it is clear that the president that they helped elect Donald Trump, could care less about free speech with the comments he made about flag burning, in which he stated it should be illegal. Many on the right claim that they strongly stand by free speech, even though they intensely attack people on the left for criticizing things such as law enforcement and the military. One side has an intense passion for social justice and the other for law and order. One of the best ways for these ideas to compete with each other is through dialogue, debate, discussion, and lecture. This allows people to listen to the other side, and in fact better understand their own argument and strengthen it. It is when people resort to using administrative power and violence that this dialogue is shut down, creating an environment conducive to misunderstanding and aggression.
We can see this with conservative speakers being shut out of speaking invitations at colleges, as well as schools like Fordham banning groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). This is not at all to say that any of these people and groups may hold very objectionable viewpoints, some of which I feel border on fascism, however what is most important is that we let people speak their mind so that we may have healthy debate and dialogue . Obviously this is not to say that these institutions do not have a legal right to restrict anything they wish, Fordham and NYU are private universities at the end of the day, which means they may adopt any policy in which they choose. However I believe they should voluntarily adopt a policy of openness. If there is any place to have one’s ideas challenged and provoked it should be in college. College at the end of the day is where discussion is meant to take place, it is the place where one should have to push their argument against others who have different arguments. We will never be able to reach absolute truth, therefore it is up to us to always be open minded about others.
Just as John Stuart Mill explained in his famous essay “On Liberty,” man is a progressive being, and the quest for truth starts when he recognizes that others hold a part of the truth as well. We don’t have to even be friends or agree with even a word of what, people who we disagree with us have to say, but we should always allow them to say what they want to say, because if we don’t, we may very well not be able to speak as well.