Biggest Threats to Free Speech Not on College Campuses

In response to some of the misinformation and manufactured outrage in the press, I wrote an opinon piece for the Hartford Courant on Sunday. This was reproduced on the HuffingtonPost the next day. ICYMI, I post it here.


As we prepared to honor Middletown military veterans at Wesleyan University’s first home football game, I sought out one of our engaged and thoughtful student vets. Bryan Stascavage had published an opinion piece in The Argus, the school newspaper, raising critical questions about the Black Lives Matter movement. The reaction to his provocative piece was intense: Some students were angry, some hurt and still others wondered what editors of The Argus were thinking when they published an essay that questioned a civil rights movement that has claimed the hearts and minds of so many of us on campus.

I trust the editors thought that Bryan’s essay would spark real conversations — the kind that make newspapers a vital part of so many communities’ cultural ecology. Sure, the editors got more than they bargained for. Some students argued that the essay was racist (I don’t think it was), or at least that it participated in systems of racist domination (what doesn’t?). They made the important point that opinion pieces like these facilitate the ongoing marginalization of a sector of our student population; and they angrily accused The Argus of contributing to that marginalization.

I’m very glad these important issues were made public — sometimes quite forcefully. Those who think they favor free speech but call for civility in all discussions should remember that battles for freedom of expression are seldom conducted in a privileged atmosphere of upper-class decorum.

Unfortunately, in addition to sparking conversation, the op-ed also generated calls to punish the newspaper. Protests against newspapers, of course, are also part of free speech. But punishment, if successful, can have a chilling effect on future expression. Many students (I think the great majority) quickly realized this and, contrary to what has been reported in the press, the student newspaper has not been defunded. Students are trying to figure out how to bring more perspectives to the public with digital platforms, and I am confident they can do this without undermining The Argus.

Commentators, perhaps weary of their impotence in the face of the perversion of free expression in politics by means of wealth, have weighed in on this so-called threat to free speech on college campuses. “What’s the matter with kids today,” these self-righteous critics ask, “don’t they realize that America depends on freedom of expression?” While economic freedom and political participation are evaporating into the new normal of radical inequality, while legislators call for arming college students to make them safer, puffed-up pundits turn their negative attention to what they see as dangerous calls to make campuses safer places for students vulnerable to discrimination. But are these calls really where the biggest threat to free expression lies? I fear that those who seize upon this so-called danger will succeed in diverting attention from far more dangerous threats.

Students, faculty and administrators want our campuses to be free and safe, but we also acknowledge that the imperatives of freedom and safety are sometimes in conflict. A campus free from violence is an absolute necessity for a true education, but a campus free from challenge and confrontation would be anathema to it. We must not protect ourselves from disagreement; we must be open to being offended for the sake of learning, and we must be ready to give offense so as to create new opportunities for thinking.

Education worthy of the name is risky — not safe. Education worthy of the name does not hide behind a veneer of civility or political correctness, but instead calls into question our beliefs. We learn most when we are ready to recognize how many of our ideas are just conventional, no matter how “radical” we think those ideas might be. We learn most when we are ready to consider challenges to our values from outside our comfort zones of political affiliation and personal ties.

Historically marginalized groups have the most to lose when freedom of expression is undermined by calls for safety. Just look at Prime Minister David Cameron’s plans for silencing anything deemed “extremist” and in conflict with “British values,” or Donald Trump’s fascistic rhetoric about closing mosques as part of his effort to “make America great again.”

My role as a university president includes giving students opportunities to make their views heard, and to learn from reactions that follow. As I wrote on my blog shortly after Bryan’s opinion piece was published, debates can raise intense emotions, but that doesn’t mean that we should demand ideological conformity because people are uncomfortable. As members of a university community, we always have the right to respond with our opinions, but, as many free speech advocates have underscored, there is no right not to be offended. Censorship diminishes true diversity of thinking; vigorous debate enlivens and instructs.

Our campus communities, like the rest of society, will be more inclusive and free when we can tolerate strong disagreements. Through our differences we learn from one another.

Wesleyan Scientists Win Big Grant (Again)

Reading the Hartford Courant, I came across the following story:

The latest round of state funding for stem cell research — totaling $9.8 million — will go to 23 research projects, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s office announced Thursday. The Connecticut Stem Cell Research Advisory Committee chose the recipients from among 109 applicants. The largest award, $1.49 million, went to Janice Naegele at Wesleyan University for a project titled “HESC-Derived GABAergic Neurons for Epilepsy Therapy.”

I wrote to Professor Naegele, who told me that the “grant is a multi-Investigator grant with Gloster Aaron and Laura Grabel. These funds will allow us to embark on new studies to determine whether human embryonic stem cell-derived GABAergic interneuron transplants restore memory and reduce seizures and anxiety in mice with severe temporal lobe epilepsy. The grant also provides stipends for graduate students and undergraduate researchers.”

This is the kind of project that is many years in the making, and I know that Profs. Naegele, Aaron and Grabel (and their students) have been dedicated to stem cell research in the epilepsy field for a long time now. When I’ve visited their labs, I’ve been so impressed by the students’ dedication and expertise. This is a great example of how scholar-teachers at Wesleyan are having an impact on the world and on their students. Congratulations to everyone who worked on the grant!