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‘Make them feel uncomfortable’: Professor calls for free speech, amid growing campus censorship

(Lezlie Sterling/The Sacramento Bee via AP, File)

(Lezlie Sterling/The Sacramento Bee via AP, File)

The newest salvo for free speech on campus revives a tradition dating back to John Stuart Mill.

Joanna Williams, a senior lecturer of higher education at the University of Kent and an editor at Spiked, advocates embracing the role of higher education as a “marketplace of ideas” in the pursuit of knowledge. That means eschewing administrative and student censorship of controversial ideas and engaging in a serious discussion of ideas.

The advantage of a marketplace of ideas is that the best, least refutable ideas will win out no matter how often they are contested by whom. The assumption that some knowledge is incontestable contributes towards a culture of conformity in universities,” Williams wrote.

She echoes the defense of free speech that Mill gave in On Liberty: “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”

Campuses across both the United States and the United Kingdom remain unfriendly to such an approach. Since 2000, “disinvitation incidents,” where students or faculty attempt to “prevent invited speakers from conveying their message on campus” have “risen dramatically,” the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education noted in a 2014 report.

Increasingly, college students have been prevented from engaging in an open and controversial discussion. Sometimes, it’s due to administrations stifling unpopular opinions, but often, the intolerance starts among students themselves.

“To me, the idea of placing some issues beyond discussion in a university — the very places that should be most suited for free and robust debate — is just bizarre,” Williams told Inside Higher Ed in an interview. “This doesn’t mean I think all ideas are equally valid or equally deserving of a place on the curriculum. But I do think it is incumbent upon academics to put before students knowledge and perspectives they will find challenging or [that] may even make them feel uncomfortable.”

Recent campus protests concerning racial equality and “safe spaces” have portrayed free speech as a tool of oppression, something that Conor Friedersdorf has called “a pernicious falsehood.” Students, in their zeal to combat racism throughout society, have threatened the stability of academic freedom. The revolt against speech has laid the groundwork to reform universities into echo chambers of illiberalism that could restrict the protests students value as tools of change.

Without free speech, students will find it more difficult to confront university policy and social ills alike. Speech remains threatened, and an urge to ban offensive speech will do little to combat insensitive thought and much to stifle student power. The value of academic freedom and free speech on campus is crucial to the value of a college degree, and students would do well to embrace that basic, liberal truth.

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