Wednesday, December 07, 2022

Small: An important first step at OU on free speech

An important first step at OU
By Jonathan Small

In recent years, too many colleges have allowed the “heckler’s veto” to prevail. Rather than engage in respectful debate, activists have been allowed to shout down speakers or prevent speeches with threats of violence.

And there have been reasons to worry about free speech at the University of Oklahoma.

The 2021 College Free Speech Rankings—presented by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), College Pulse, and RealClearEducation—surveyed over 37,000 students at 159 colleges. Colleges were scored on seven main components: openness to discussion of controversial topics, tolerance for liberal speakers, tolerance for conservative speakers, administrative support for free speech, comfort expressing ideas publicly, whether students support disruptive conduct during campus speeches, and FIRE’s speech code rating.

OU ranked 110th out of the 159 colleges reviewed.

That’s what makes recent action by the board of regents of the University of Oklahoma such welcome news. The regents became the latest to adopt the Chicago Statement, which says that individuals should be free to “criticize and contest speakers,” but not to “obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views.”

Originally produced at the University of Chicago in 2014-2015, the statement touts the importance of “preservation and celebration of the freedom of expression as an essential element” of a university’s culture.

“In a word, the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed,” the Chicago Statement declares. “It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose. Indeed, fostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission.”

While adopting the Chicago Statement is a great first step, OU officials can do more. Another step would be to adopt the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report, which recognizes that a university should remain neutral on social and political issues. The Kalven Report recognizes that “the mission of the university is the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge”—not the pursuit of so-called social justice.

As Frederick Douglass noted in 1860, “To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker. It is just as criminal to rob a man of his right to speak and hear as it would be to rob him of his money.”

Our democratic process cannot operate without free and open debate.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.


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