The Purdue Graduate Student Government hosted the discussion forum “What is Free Speech?” last night with speakers Azhar Majeed and Geoffrey Stone.
Majeed is the director of the Individual Rights Education Program for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, while Stone is the distinguished service professor of law at the University of Chicago. They spoke about the Chicago principles of academic freedom and freedom of expression, which Purdue adopted in May.
The president of the University of Chicago asked Stone to work with other faculty members to draft a statement of freedom of expression for the University.
There have been many issues regarding freedom of expression on college campuses across the country, and these issues prompted the president to make the University of Chicago’s commitment to freedom of expression publicly known.
“It has statements from past presidents of the University of Chicago about the importance of academic freedom and free speech,” said Stone.
Students, faculty and other audience members were invited to give their input during the discussion. The discussion covered many topics such as the issue of microgressions, students requesting trigger warnings in class descriptions and students joining together to fight derogatory and racist comments like those made at the University of Missouri.
Majeed stated that in addition to wanting freedom of speech, there is also an increasing student population now calling for censorship of speech.
“Freedom from speech is something we’re starting to see more and more,” he said. “Students not only misunderstand what freedom of speech means, but they have this idea that there needs to be freedom from speech in college and in society at large. The idea is that ‘I have a right to be free from certain viewpoints, to not hear anything that upsets me and to not be confronted with ideas that I find disagreeable.’”
These ideas cause Majeed to worry about where society is headed and what free speech rights will look like in the future.
Frank Dooley, the vice provost for teaching and learning at Purdue, was impressed with how full the room was for the discussion. He felt it displayed the importance of the topic of free speech for people of multiple demographics.
“There were faculty, citizens like the bartender, there were lots of students and probably more undergraduates than graduates,” said Dooley. “People are interested in this whole concept about what is free speech and what does it mean to us. I think people are looking for answers. ‘What can I do, what can’t I do?’ People want clarity in their lives.”
“Are there limits of free speech? In the case of harassment, affirmation and threats, it’s very clear to establish that you can’t say anything that you want,” said Dooley. “There are these gray areas, but I think everyone wants to be respected and wants the opportunity to be heard.”
Addison Lange, a sophomore in the College of Engineering, was shocked to learn about the discrepancies between freedom of speech with employees at universities.
“It was surprising to hear about the separation between which employees at the University have freedom of academic speech and which employees are limited,” said Lange. “Professors, for example, have more freedom than employees in landscaping.”
The main takeaway from the conversation was that everyone has their own opinions, and no one has the right to mute others.
“Believing in free speech is not believing that the ideas that others espouse are good; they may in fact be loathsome, ugly, hateful and stupid,” said Stone. “Belief in free speech means telling that person that their ideas are loathsome and stupid and why they should be rejected instead of trying to silence them. There are good ideas and there are bad ideas. All of us don’t agree on what’s good and what’s bad, and no one should make that judgment for us.”