Free speech on campus should be maintained

The College has always been a place for the free exchange of ideas. However, as I have discussed in the past, in order to maintain this free exchange of ideas on the College campus, it is necessary to have certain boundaries within which we must operate. For example, if we allow one group to shout down another, that does not create an intelligent debate. Rather, it silences one group. Likewise, I believe that personal attacks-not criticisms, but attacks, violate the principles of informed debate.

This is not to say that all attacks on other people ought to be banned. Instead, we must consider the realm of speech on a campus and the categories therein. As I have stated in the past, there are certain types of speech, that, while permissible in the world at large, exceed the realm we have created for ourselves on this campus. You cannot challenge a person’s right to be free from discrimination, for example, because this is a freedom we have explicitly guaranteed. You cannot threaten another person, as we guarantee freedom from violence.

Beyond this distinction, the realm of free speech is relatively unlimited. This does not mean, however, that all free speech is necessarily in good taste. Certain types of speech, while pretending to be in good faith, do not contribute to the marketplace of ideas; rather, they merely attack the people who state ideas, without actually giving reason to disagree. Misrepresentation, for example, serves little to further an intelligent discussion of ideas.

In addition to considering what is being said, we must also consider who is saying it and in what forum. For example, when a faculty member wages an attack, it is likely to be more forceful than when a student wages an attack. Thus, faculty must be especially careful that they engage in public criticisms only when necessary.

Students, on the other hand, hold the responsibility to question authority. One of the foremost principles of our College is that it should give students room to grow and explore their beliefs. If students were banned from public questioning of authority, these principles might be jeopardized.

Members of the faculty possess these same rights to question students publicly; however I would urge caution in their exercise. For the same reason I believed students would not be able to ‘one-up’ Justice Scalia in question time, I find it highly improbable that faculty members might lose an all-out rhetoric battle with a student. Faculty members simply have more practice in laying out an argument. If I were as well practiced as the faculty, I should like to think I would have a doctorate in philosophy now.

What this means is that while faculty are not necessarily compelled to remain silent in the face of attacks by students, it would be advisable. Just as, traditionally, when faculty have questioned one another’s ideologies, they have done so privately, so too might faculty question other students’ ideologies in private. Students here, like most Americans, love blood. A rhetorical bloodbath thus becomes more fascinating because of the blood and not the rhetoric being exchanged.

When attacks do happen, however, it must remain clear that they are attacks on rhetoric and not on people. As someone who is now frequently attacked in The Student, I bear no ill will toward those who criticize or attack me. I have put my ideas out for all to see, and I should hope that even those who do not agree with me now will consider the ideas I have put forth. I try not to respond to my critics publicly, because I think a discussion about ideas should be constructive and not a mere back and forth of criticism of minor points.

Likewise, when we have a disagreement about something on our campus and we do decide to engage in a discussion, even a back and forth, I believe that this discussion must remain ‘in the family.’ Part of what allows us to discuss our ideas and put forth our opinions on this campus is that we understand that what we say will be critiqued by our peers and that we can draw on the safeguards of our community that do not exist in the wider world, as well as the ability to discuss the ideas with their primary audience. If I were publishing in The New York Times, my articles would have a distinctly different effect. They would be given more weight, and the ideas I criticize and the people who support them would be open to a much wider audience than the College community. This is not to say that I would not open my ideas up to these critics, but rather that I should like to do it on my own terms and when I am ready. It is one thing for me to submit my article to The New York Times; it is quite another for someone to submit only their criticism of my article.

To conclude, I do not profess to be an expert on the principles of debate on a campus. These observations come from my experience, and I wish only to set forth the ideals that I believe would allow us to engage in a more informed discussion of ideas on this campus. This is not an ultimatum. I just hope that we can keep the discussion focused on the ideas, rather than engaging in one sentence attacks and unsubstantiated allegations.