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  1. Opinion

Editorial: DeSantis is right to push for campus free speech

Gov. Ron DeSantis is right to call for guarantees of free speech on Florida’s college and university campuses. [Chris Urso  |   Times]
Gov. Ron DeSantis is right to call for guarantees of free speech on Florida’s college and university campuses. [Chris Urso | Times]
Published Apr. 16

Gov. Ron DeSantis is right to push for all of Florida's colleges and universities to declare every viewpoint should be open for discussion on campus, even ones that students may "loathe" or find "deeply offensive." The whole point of the liberal arts is to sharpen a student's thinking and to expose her to a range of ideas, many with which she will disagree. Adopting a common message in favor of free speech would send an unambiguous message about freedom of expression

DeSantis urged the state's colleges and universities this week to adopt resolutions similar to the "Chicago statement," named after a free speech document written four years ago by the University of Chicago. It has since adopted at scores of universities and colleges across the nation, including Princeton, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Purdue and Columbia — and the University of Central Florida, Eckerd College and Stetson University in Florida.

"We are here today to affirm our commitment to ensuring that all Florida's public universities and colleges and protect student speech and the open exchange of ideas on our campuses," DeSantis said during his Monday news conference, flanked by Florida State University President John Thrasher, Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran and Marshall Criser, chancellor of the state's university system.

The governor mentioned the polarizing case of white nationalist Richard Spencer, who spoke at the University of Florida in October 2017. Spencer had to cut his speech short after students in the audience drowned him out. DeSantis reasonably suggested the best rebuke to Spencer by students would have been "an empty auditorium." A well-attended anti-white supremacy rally at another location also would have worked. Spencer's amateurish talk at UF cost the taxpayers nearly $600,000 because of extra security and other measures. But free speech and the First Amendment have a price, and it needs to be paid in a free society.

It is important to recognize that even the Chicago statement prescribes limits: "The freedom to debate and discuss the merits of competing ideas does not, of course, mean that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish. The university may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the university. In addition, the university may reasonably regulate the time, place and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the university. But these are narrow exceptions."

Some see free speech as the right to say whatever they want, but are not always willing to extend that right to speech they find abhorrent. That is worth remembering in the current climate in which it is mainly members of the right who contend their free speech rights on campus are restricted. It wasn't always so. In the 1930s, the University of Chicago weathered a storm when it allowed the Communist Party candidate for president to speak. So anyone seeking to suppress speech should remember the tables could turn. In the marketplace of ideas that a college quad should embody, the answer is not to squelch speech but to allow more of it. Let good ideas drive out bad ones, not by a heckler's veto but by letting all sides be heard.

Chicago President-emerita Hanna Holborn Gray made clear the point of a university education that runs through the "Chicago statement": "Education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think. Universities should be expected to provide the conditions within which hard thought, and therefore strong disagreement, independent judgment, and the questioning of stubborn assumptions, can flourish in an environment of the greatest freedom."

She is right, and so are all the institutions of higher learning that adopt such free speech guidelines.

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