Brown, WUSTL follow UC's lead, embrace free expression

Washington University in St. Louis affirmed its “unwavering commitment to freedom of expression and the free exchange of ideas” with a strongly-worded statement of principle by the faculty.

Brown University President Christina Paxton also weighed in on the matter recently, stating in a recent op-ed that Brown does not offer "safe spaces" or otherwise shield students from opposing viewpoints.

The statement declares absolute support for the free exchange of ideas, and disavows "punitive action" based solely on the content of someone's speech.

Washington University in St. Louis affirmed its “unwavering commitment to freedom of expression and the free exchange of ideas” with a strongly-worded statement of principle by the faculty.

The Statement of Principle Regarding Freedom of Expression was authored by faculty members and adopted by the Faculty Senate Council after a collaborative effort to make WashU a “more inclusive and more dynamic institution.”

The only way to reach this goal, said the authors of the statement, is to protect the community’s right to free speech.

[RELATED: University of Chicago held up as national model for free speech]

“One of the great contributions our university makes to society is the creation of new knowledge and new solutions to the world’s toughest challenges,” Chancellor Mark Wrighton said. “To fulfill that critical aspect of our mission—to truly make a positive difference, individually and collectively—we must be a community in which every one of us feels empowered to offer ideas and perspectives. We charged our faculty with the important task of developing this principle to help us sustain an open, creative, innovative, and intellectually stimulating environment on our campuses.”

Simply affirming free speech is not enough for the WashU faculty, though, who believe that a real commitment to free speech should include promotional resources such as “physical and virtual forums, academic panels and presentations, as well as funding and sponsorship of such means of public expression.”

[RELATED: UPenn reminds students that ‘freedom goes both ways’ after speech shutdown]

“In allocating such resources the university should focus on a principle of inclusivity, fostering as broad a range of ideas as possible from as many different constituencies of the university community as possible,” the statement asserts.

The university has also pledged to avoid any “punitive action” against members of the community who exercise their right to free expression, explaining that they will set norms for respectful dialogue but will not take disciplinary action against those who break these norms.

“We simply cannot waver on the issue of open expression,” Provost Holden Thorp said. “This principle applies not only to the experience in our classrooms, but to the overall experience of being a member of our community. I’m grateful for the faculty’s leadership.”

The Statement of Principle Regarding Freedom of Expression is a follow-up to an earlier statement about “Balancing Rigor and Respect in the Learning Environment,” reports The Source.

In that statement, released in July, the university describes the use of trigger warnings and says that creating a safe learning environment for students must be compatible with academic freedom.

“Learning takes place when we grapple with new and at times challenging ideas, concepts, and perspectives, and this process not infrequently involves exposure to distressing facts and events,” the statement reads. “As an institution, we affirm the importance of academic freedom and the rigor it provides to our learning environments. At the same time, we remain mindful of the varied responses that subject matter can evoke in learners, especially those who have experienced trauma.”

The statement goes on to explain that students experiencing discomfort with course material should see their instructors or program managers to discuss concerns. In cases of potential trauma, students should be referred to available health services.

[RELATED: Bias Response Team investigated prof's for discussing conflicting opinions]

WashU does not endorse trigger warnings in the statement, and affirms the right of professors to teach sensitive material as long as they “be alert to possible adverse reactions” and consider “reasonable accommodations” for affected students.

Brown University also recently defended their commitment to free speech in a Washington Post op-ed by the university president, Christina Paxton.

The university would not create safe spaces, Paxton said, at least not in the form that shields students from opposing viewpoints.

[RELATED: You won't find safe spaces here, UC dean tells freshmen]

“I’m not talking about rooms with Play-Doh and coloring books like one set up by Brown campus organizers specifically as a resource to support survivors of sexual assault in one instance some years ago,” she explained. “Rather, we see safe spaces in the choices our students make every day. Students find many opportunities through clubs and organizations to meet those who share similar backgrounds and interests — religious, political and otherwise,”

According to Paxton, limiting freedom of expression at a university stunts human growth and academic progress.

[RELATED: Brown student protesters complain homework is interfering with their activism]

“Freedom of expression is an essential component of academic freedom, which protects the ability of universities to fulfill their core mission of advancing knowledge. Suppressing ideas at a university is akin to turning off the power at a factory,” she asserted.

“If we don’t have these debates—if we limit the flow of ideas—then in 50 years we will be no better than we are today.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @amber_athey