Minnesota professors: Free speech more important than 'climate of mutual respect'


Soon, tours of the University of Minnesota might have to prepare prospective students for the school's free speech policy.

Outrage is all the rage on American college campuses. Both sides in a long-running but newly heated debate have dug in on their positions. On one side, some, most of them students, have pushed for campuses to be "safe spaces" where kids are free to pursue an education without the threat of an insult or offensive behavior that could ruin their learning experience.  

On the other, free speech champions say students are grown-ups, or close enough, and should be able to handle potentially offensive speech if they plan to operate in the real world.

A powerful panel of University of Minnesota professors has taken its own position on the thorny topic, as detailed in the Washington Post. They're siding with free speech. 

The University's Faculty Consultative Committee gave its support to a four-point statement that calls for the University to protect the free exchange of ideas — "paramount" to higher learning — even if some, or many, will find those ideas "offensive, uncivil, or even hateful." 

The faculty committee passed its resolution by a 7-2 margin, and is now seeking comment from University President Eric Kaler and the student senate, among others, before sending the measure on to the full faculty senate. 

Kaler, for his part, has been an outspoken proponent of free speech in the past. In 2014, he defended the U's invited guest speaker Condoleezza Rice, the former U.S. Secretary of State under George W. Bush. Kaler met faculty upset over Rice's event by saying the school should be an institution that not just "promotes, but aggressively celebrates free speech."


Milo Yiannopoulos seemed to delight in outraging his protesters.

The school has recently seen  politically liberal protesters attempt to disrupt controversial visiting lecturers like Moshe Halbertal, an Israeli scholar who penned the Israeli Defense Force's code of conduct, and Milo Yiannopoulos, a conservative commentator who spares no one's feelings in his thoughts about feminism, Islam, and "rape culture." 

One passage of the free speech resolution suggests that students are free to feel offended, or outraged, by a speaker's words — but not to suppress them:

Students at a well-functioning university should expect to encounter ideas that unsettle them... 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. But at a public university, no word is so blasphemous or offensive it cannot be uttered; no belief is so sacred or widely held it cannot be criticized; no idea is so intolerant it cannot be tolerated. So long as the speech is constitutionally protected, and neither harasses nor threatens another person, it cannot be prohibited.
On another point, the faculty say the school shouldn't make its decisions about who gets time on the microphone using the "perception that some speakers have 'too much' ... power in public debate."

The statement ends with a hint at what would prove the real, uncomfortable test of such a position, should it be accepted by the full University.

"On those rare occasions when protecting expression conflicts with other values, like maintaining a climate of mutual respect on campus, the right to speak must prevail."

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