Our View: Campus ‘free’ speech would benefit from respectful boundaries | Editorial

It’s college graduation season, and with it comes the annual protests by students over commencement speakers whose politics or resumes don’t meet with their approval.

Some turn their backs, others hold up signs or yell out improprieties. Still others simply don’t show up.

NAU saw none of those commencement confrontations earlier this month, but the academic year was not without tensions on the Mountain Campus over free speech on the both the left and right. They mirrored events on college campuses across the country, in part as members of the alt right movement and other conservatives asserted themselves in the wake of the election of Donald Trump.

Campus officials have had to insert new pages into their playbook of what is considered appropriate conduct and speech, and how or if it should be protected or sanctioned. Some speakers known for white supremacist and nationalist views have been officially invited to campus, only to be shouted down by students. At NAU, conservative students have videotaped lectures they consider biased or politicized, then fed them to websites that are red meat for alt right internet trolls. These are often video snippets that lack the context of full lectures and result in caricatures of professors, who become target of harassing emails and spam.


On the other side of the political spectrum, LGBTQ students and racial minorities have demanded what they call “safe spaces” for closed meetings on issues of discrimination and bias – only those with an invitation may attend, and certainly not the press. NAU President Rita Cheng has spurned such spaces, contending a university should promote open dialogue even of sensitive topics – similar to what students will face after college. Yet campuses are also by design cloistered from the outside world just so students are given the space to innovate and experiment without fear of ridicule if they fail. J.S. Mill’s defense of free speech so long as it does no “harm” to basic rights may be too broad for an intentional community like a college campus, but it is one that this country’s legal system strictly observes.

The bottom line for many campus officials, according to a survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education, is that just being a member of a hate group or distributing offensive material on campuses is not criminal, nor is it usually a violation of campus policy. It’s also impossible to predict every case of a student engaging in violence or other criminal actions as a result of their views.

Further complicating enforcement is the remote nature of internet harassment. Many campus codes of conduct, including NAU’s, cover students and staff, but they lack jurisdiction over speech that originates off-campus and thus are silent. Only if the online communications – emails, texts or posts – include threats against a specific person, not, for example, the denigration of an entire class of people or professors in general, would law enforcement get involved.

Some college departments have adopted the position that if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em – invite alt right and conservative speakers to campus, if only as a way to put a human face to what in some cases is anonymous online hate speech. But hate speech doesn’t have to be subsidized by student speaker fees — UC Berkeley officials could have gotten the white nationalist perspective without inviting Milo Yiannopoulos, the then-Breitbart editor known for his abusive language toward women and minorities.


On the other hand, a speaker like Charles Murray, known for his controversial bell curve that takes a deterministic approach to intelligence and class structure in America, is a mild-mannered scholar whose research is controversial. To shout him down, as Middlebury College students did, then attack him as he left the stage, injuring a professor who was attempting to shield him, is the kind of intolerance that has no place on a campus touting academic freedom. Administrators were right to hand out various sanctions to more than 70 students – frankly, some were fortunate they weren’t prosecuted for assault.

If colleges are going to invite people to campus with contrarian or provocative views, why not make it a two-way or even three-way dialogue instead of a one-way speech. Have a professor conduct an in-depth interview on stage, with a chance for audience participation. Or invite another advocate with opposing views, then conduct a public debate with an informed moderator.


The goal of any institution of higher learning should be to not only expose students to a wide range of views while they are enrolled but to engage those views critically and constructively. Faculty and staff can help by being facilitators and, if needed, referees. But it’s not censorship to insist that invited speakers observe basic codes of respectful speech toward any person or group, and students do the same. To close off college campuses on the premise that no common ground is possible is essentially to close the American mind, and that’s a dead end for students as well as democracy.

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