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Experts Tell Congress Free Speech on Campus ‘Essential’

WASHINGTON — In order to prepare students for the complex situations they will face in the world and the workplace, higher education leaders and government officials must resist efforts to restrict free speech on campus and keep colleges as places of “ongoing intellectual challenge,” a university president testified at a Congressional hearing Thursday.

Dr. Robert ZimmerDr. Robert Zimmer

“Every student at a university deserves an education that deeply enriches their capabilities,” University of Chicago President Dr. Robert Zimmer said.

Among other things, Zimmer said students must learn to recognize and evaluate evidence, challenge their own and others’ assumptions, and effectively argue their positions.

“If the education that we provide does not give students the opportunity to acquire these skills and abilities, they will be underprepared to make informed decisions in the complex and uncertain world they will confront upon entering the workplace,” Zimmer said.

Free expression and open discourse are “essential” for students to acquire such skills, Zimmer said, and high-quality research requires “unfettered investigation and a willingness to challenge assumptions, and the free expression that goes with it is essential.”

“To limit free expression is, quite simply, to limit the quality of education and the quality of research,” Zimmer said.

Zimmer made his remarks Thursday during a hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, or the Senate HELP committee. The hearing was meant to explore free speech on college campuses.

The hearing comes at a time of escalating tensions on college campuses throughout the nation and ongoing debates over whether there is a need for colleges to restrict speakers whose speech is deemed as hateful or offensive.

For the most part, there seemed to be agreement that the federal government should not restrict free speech on college campuses beyond the First Amendment and its attendant body of law. However, there were a few notable and occasionally testy exchanges.

For instance, Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., took exception after Nadine Strossen, the John Marshall Harlan II Professor of Law at New York Law School, suggested that research has shown exposure to hate speech builds resilience.

“I don’t think hate speech helps people,” Hassan said.

In her written testimony, Strossen noted that Northeastern University psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett recently wrote that while “chronic” stress may cause physical illness, that shorter-term stress, including the stress that follows exposure to “hate speech,” can be beneficial.

Strossen responded that she was quoting “respected social psychologists” and also political activists — including former U.S. President Barack Obama and political commentator Van Jones.

“They concur that given the sad reality [of] the prevalence of hateful attitudes and speech and conduct, it is disempowering to these students to shelter them and shield them because it is going to undermine their resilience and ability to effectively respond,” Strossen said. “I think we all agree we’re looking in the long run for how they’re going to be most effective in a world where hate is a reality and hate groups [are] a reality.”

Hassan countered that “telling people who are victims of hate speech or who might have been traumatized by the combination in their past of hate speech and physical violence how they should feel and whether it empowers them is inappropriate.”

Hassan added, “And there’s lot of research that you didn’t cite that indicates exactly the opposite of what you did [cite].”

When Hassan said “people are their own best judges” of the effects of hate speech, Strossen countered: “That’s exactly why everyone I cited is a minority person who was speaking from an experience of having been subjected to hate speech.”

The discussion also dealt with the balance that universities must strike when it comes to granting access to controversial speakers and protecting students.

“When does protected speech cross the line into an unprotected incitement of violence, and can’t we agree that a university has a responsibility to protect its students from this kind of planned violence?” Hassan asked, citing a recent lawsuit filed against organizers of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville — home of the University of Virginia — that resulted in the death of a counter protester.

The lawsuit alleges that hundreds of neo-Nazis and White supremacists traveled to Charlottesville in order to “terrorize its residents, commit acts of violence, and use the town as a backdrop to showcase for the media and the nation a neo-nationalist agenda.”

J. Richard Cohen, president at the Southern Poverty Law Center, testified that the issues being discussed “are extraordinarily complex,” and that cases where people are intimidating or harassing others are “clearly not protected speech.”

“So there are limits but all these questions are intensely factually specific,” Cohen said. “That’s the challenge in a situation like Charlottesville to disentangle it.”

In response to questions about how to counter hateful speech and the merits of disruptive protests, Cohen said his organization recommends either staging counter events or not attending the speeches of controversial speakers to deprive them of the attention they seek.

“Hold alternative events. Stay away,” Cohen said. “Those seem like the most important things to be done.”

Zimmer said it is important for university leaders and faculty to address the culture of an institution.

“Where the culture of free expression and open discourse is strong, that culture needs to be purposefully reinforced,” Zimmer said. “On the other hand, where the culture of free expression and open discourse is not strong, the institution needs to undertake a purposeful attempt to change this culture.”

He said it is best to let university boards of trustees, college presidents and faculty figure out how to respond to issues of free speech and hate speech on campus.

Senate HELP committee chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., concurred.

“I hope that the United States Congress won’t do what it is often tempted to do, which is to think that we’ve flown to Washington from our homes and suddenly become wise enough to tell 6,000 colleges and universities what to do,” Alexander said. “We have a free speech mandate in the United States Constitution, and we have university presidents and board members and faculty members and communities who ought to be able to argue this out and try to respect everyone’s rights as we move ahead.”

Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at [email protected] or you can follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.

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