Chicago prof outlines steps to safeguard free speech on campus

A University of Chicago professor recently weighed in on the issue of free speech on college campuses, or at least the lack thereof, outlining a five-point plan for reversing the trend of restricting potentially offensive speech.

In an op-ed for RealClearPolitics Tuesday, UC political science professor Charles Lipson argues that free speech on college campuses is on the verge of becoming extinct, and that administrators are largely to blame for the increased censorship.

“Today, dean-of-students offices are devoted to comforting delicate snowflakes and soothing their feelings,” he contends. “If that means stamping out others’ speech, too bad.”

According to Lipson, titles such as “the Office for Diversity and Inclusion” are deceptive offices driven by ideology. He suggests they are advocates for “approved minorities, approved viewpoints, and approved grievances,” rather than actually including other groups such as Chinese-Americans or Christians who may also be minorities on campus.

“That means the whole process is not only ludicrous, it is deeply biased against some viewpoints,” Lipson argues. “That’s what ‘inclusion and diversity’ means in practice, not just at Chicago or Northern Colorado but at universities across the country.”

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

To combat this problem, Lipson provides five steps on how universities can vanquish safe spaces and restore the use of free speech on campus.

Lipson believes that the presence of free speech begins and ends with the administration, and so suggests that the Board of Trustees should play a larger role in holding school administrators accountable for restricting speech.

He goes on to say that universities should warn their students that the school encourages free expression, suggesting that they could begin acceptance letters with a disclaimer saying, “our school believes in free speech, open debate, and diverse opinions. You will hear different views on controversial topics. You are urged to read, write, and develop your own views, but you may not suppress others.”

As the third step, Lipson proposes that one ranking administrator be assigned the sole responsibility of tracking the degree of open debate and free speech, on campus, explaining that “he or she should make regular reports to the university president, faculty, and board, just as others do about gender discrimination, physical safety, and other issues.”

In step four, Lipson calls for student affairs offices to support basic academic freedoms and restore the true meaning of “student safety.”

“It shouldn’t be distorted to shield students from uncomfortable ideas,” Lipson contends. “In the 1950s, that would have prevented students at Ole Miss from urging racial integration, or even hearing about it in class. Somebody would have been offended,”

To conclude his five steps to a free campus, Lipson requests that universities allow students the right to hold a peaceful protest, and to pledge that if a protest is disrupted, those responsible will be properly punished.

[RELATED: UC backs up ‘Chicago Statement’ with action]

Lipson describes several instances in which free speech is being censored across the country, such as the University of Northern Colorado’s Bias Response Team, which reprimanded professors for discussing difficult topics such as religion and transgender issues in class after a student filed a complaint claiming the debate threatened her safety.

[RELATED: UNC admits it could ‘revisit’ Bias Response Team after national criticism]

“‘Safety’, as it happens, is a magic word on campus,” Lipson wrote. “Crying 'unsafe' is the campus equivalent of pulling the fire alarm—but with no sense of what a fire really is and no penalty for false alarms.”

Lipson pointed out that even schools with great free speech principles often fall short of practicing those principles—even the University of Chicago, a school traditionally known for its strong support for free expression.

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

In another example, Lipson describes student debate leaders who were forced to undergo a “sensitivity discussion” simply for choosing to debate on the topics of affirmative action and immigration reform. One student complained that black students were harmed by hearing an affirmative action debate, and Hispanic students claimed they were “injured” merely by seeing the words “illegal immigration.”

[RELATED: Yale students agree their campus restricts free speech]

Lipson recalls that he complained to an administrator about how the issue was handled, but says the administrator defended the “sensitivity discussion” as justified.

“Unless universities address these issues, firmly and promptly, they will fail in their basic mission of promoting the exchange of ideas, real learning, and innovative research,” Lipson warns. “That mission requires vigorous, unfettered debates and diverse viewpoints. Right now, it is being smothered in an avalanche of delicate snowflakes.”

Alumni, too, have a role to play in promoting free speech on campus, Lipson told Campus Reform.

"The university's top leaders should hear from you. They should know you support free and open discourse with different points of view," he said. "Education should never be about lock-step agreement. If you want your voice heard, don't bother writing to the alumni association. Well meaning or not, they are out of the loop on this. Write to the university president."

Summing up his feelings on the matter, Lipson added, "There is absolutely no reason why speech should be freer on an 8:00 p.m. primetime TV show than an 8:00 a.m. class at the university."

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