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College Presidents Defend Importance of Free Speech

HARTFORD, Conn. ― As debates about race and other social issues flare on campuses, college presidents are increasingly intervening to draw a line when cultural sensitivity conflicts with freedom of speech.

At schools including Yale, Williams College and Wesleyan University, leaders have in recent weeks taken steps to assert the importance of the free expression of ideas, even those that some might find objectionable.

School presidents reject critics’ portrayals of today’s college students as coddled and overprotected, but some say students arrive in need of help learning to engage others with contrary opinions. In their responses to barriers that go up around some discussions, they say they strive to keep conversations going, often reminding students that a commitment to free speech is part of building an inclusive campus.

At Williams, a liberal arts school in western Massachusetts, President Adam Falk expressed frustration when a student group last month canceled a speaking invitation for writer Suzanne Venker, a critic of feminism. Picking up on a theme from a convocation address earlier in the semester, he wrote to the campus community that learning cannot occur without exposure to a wide range of ideas.

“I think that our students, probably more so than previous generations, come to college having been marinated in a media environment that does not foster productive conservation across disagreements,” Falk said in an interview. “That means it is even more important that colleges find ways to work with students to teach them that and to model that for them.”

A recent wave of campus protests nationwide has brought new attention to the issue, with some civil liberties advocates fretting that it will erode free speech. The protests, including those that led to the ouster of the University of Missouri’s president, also have added to the pressure on presidents to be responsive to students’ demands.

But institution leaders say it is nothing new for them to navigate First Amendment conflicts, with more cropping up with this generation in particular on campuses that are generally far more diverse than their communities at home.

Wesleyan’s president, Michael Roth, wrote a piece defending free speech in September after the student government moved to cut funding for the student newspaper over an op-ed piece on the Black Lives Matter movement. In an interview, he said the fact that some do not value free speech above all things is not a sign of a problem, but rather reflects one of many continuing debates on a diverse campus.

“As a president, I think it’s pretty simple,” Roth said. “You want to keep the conversation going so that you can learn from other people’s views, but you also want to make sure you’re learning and not just spinning your wheels.”

Still, Roth said he was asked this week by students how he could defend both the student newspaper and students protesting racism.

A similar debate has played out at Brown University, where President Christina Paxson criticized the student newspaper over columns that the editors themselves deemed racist after they were published. While some faculty members said the administration’s actions suggested it wants student editors to suppress all opinion pieces that could be deemed offensive, others have argued that calling out racism does not encroach upon freedom of speech.

At Yale, the question of speech loomed over protests by students calling for a more inclusive campus after some seized on a residential college administrator’s defense of stereotypical Halloween attire such as Native American headpieces. Yale President Peter Salovey promised changes this week but insisted the university’s work does not conflict with its commitment to free speech, which he said is “unshakeable.”

Falk said all college presidents are seeking the best strategies to keep people on campus engaging with each other productively.

“Any gathering of college presidents, no matter what the topic, turns into a conversation about these issues,” he said.

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