The case against free speech at the University of Minnesota

The University of Minnesota can't decide if speech should still be free even if it's offensive.

The University of Minnesota can't decide if speech should still be free even if it's offensive.

With the growth on college campuses in trigger warnings and safe spaces, shouting down speakers and blocking student journalists from public property, Prof. Dale Carpenter decided that the U of M could use a refresher in free speech.

He drafted a set of four “core principles” reaffirming what free speech is and how the U should uphold it. “Ideas are the lifeblood of a free society and universities are its beating heart,” Carpenter wrote. “If freedom of speech is undermined on a university campus, it is not safe anywhere.”

The four principles, which are modeled after the University of Chicago’s famous “Chicago principles” in defense of free speech, are:

1. A public university must be absolutely committed to protecting free speech, both for constitutional and academic reasons.

  1. Free speech includes protection for speech that some find offensive, uncivil, or even hateful.

  2. Free speech cannot be regulated on the ground that some speakers are thought to have more power or more access to the mediums of speech than others.

  3. Even when protecting free speech conflicts with other important University values, free speech must be paramount.

    Other universities like Princeton, Purdue, and Yale have adopted close versions of these codes. The U of M, however, has had a particularly difficult time getting behind them.

    The Student Senate, Council of Graduate Students, and at least one faculty member have wrangled over the principles for months. As a result, Carpenter’s proposal has been tabled for the remainder of the academic year.

    In March, the Council of Graduate Students wrote an official letter in opposition, calling the wording “tone-deaf,” “ill-advised,” and “deplorably patronizing.”

    The group would prefer the University regulate speech by giving “special consideration to otherwise marginalized speakers.”

    Jonathan Borowsky, spokesman for the Council of Graduate Students, explained that's not to say that the powerful and privileged should be shut down. Rather, the University should be expected to assume the responsibility of offering special opportunities for those who are not well-spoken or who use English as a second language to express themselves as well. Soliciting those students' thoughts could be a form of good "regulation," Borowsky says.

    "We were trying to communicate that this proposal was really problematic even though we agreed with parts of it," he says. "People found it offensive. What people heard was there's just one right way to speak, and it contributed to an atmosphere where many felt like their views weren't welcome. So we sent a letter objecting to the free speech document, but also supporting free speech."

    The grad students also took issue with the fourth principle, which urges students to fight speech with which they disagree using counter-speech instead of censorship. “The most effective response to offensive ideas is to rebut them with better ideas,” Carpenter proposed. “Speakers are themselves subject to criticism from within the community for the substance of their ideas and the tone of their words.”

    This too was insulting.

    “Some community members may believe that their points of view are habitually ignored, regardless of the quality of their ideas, due to racism or other prejudice, cultural difference, or differences in power,” the Council of Graduate Students responded. “These sentences, with no context or specificity, presume to know the best way for people to advocate for themselves.”

    When members of the Student Senate discussed the core principles, they were also split on similar concerns of whether speech should be free even when it’s hateful, and whether reaffirming free speech is even necessary when everyone’s trying to “evolve intellectually in order to have hard conversations about such things as race and equality.” 

    Within the faculty ranks, engineering Prof. Catherine French also argued against free speech so long as hate speech is included in freedom of expression.

    In the end, though faculty voted to support the core principles, students spoke up in opposition during the full University Senate meeting last week. The University Senate did not vote on the proposal, and will not meet again until the fall.