Free Speech Is Threatened on Campus

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Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Protests have erupted on university campuses across the country. To many, these students are speaking out against racial injustice that has long been manifested in unwelcoming, sometimes hostile environments. But to critics, their demands have gone too far, creating an atmosphere of intolerance for opposing or unpopular points of view. Are the protestors silencing free speech, or are they just trying to be heard? And are the universities responding by defending free speech, or by suppressing it?

  • WendyKaminer90x90px


    Wendy Kaminer

    Writer & Lawyer

  • John-McWhorter 90x90px


    John McWhorter

    Professor of Linguistics, Columbia University

  • ShaunHarper 90px


    Shaun Harper

    Exec. Dir., Center for the Study of Race & Equity in Education, UPenn

  • JasonStanley 90px v2


    Jason Stanley

    Professor of Philosophy, Yale University

    • Moderator Image


      John Donvan

      Author & Correspondent for ABC News

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For The Motion

Wendy Kaminer

Writer & Lawyer

Wendy Kaminer, an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian, has been writing about the intersections of law and culture for the past 30 years. Her subjects range from feminism, free speech, religion, and the personal development tradition to criminal justice and the post 9/11 surveillance state. She has published eight books, including Worst Instincts; Free for All; Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials; It’s All the Rage; A Fearful Freedom; and I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional. Her articles have appeared in publications including The Atlantic,, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The American Prospect, Free Inquiry,, and in numerous anthologies. Her commentaries have aired on National Public Radio. A former Guggenheim fellow and Smith College medalist, she is an adviser to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and a member of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

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For The Motion

John McWhorter

Professor of Linguistics, Columbia University

John McWhorter teaches linguistics, philosophy, American Studies and music at Columbia University. He specializes in language change and language contact. He is the author of many books, including The Language Hoax, What Language Is, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, Word on the Street, The Power of Babel and Losing the Race. A contributing editor at The New Republic, he has also been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Time, and The New Yorker. McWhorter has appeared on Dateline NBC, Politically Incorrect, Talk of the Nation, Today, Good Morning America, The Jim Lehrer NewsHour, Up with Chris Hayes, and Fresh Air. Prior to Columbia, he was an associate professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, and a fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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Against The Motion

Shaun Harper

Exec. Dir., Center for the Study of Race & Equity in Education, UPenn

Recognized in Education Week as one of the 12 most influential professors in the field of education, Shaun R. Harper produces groundbreaking research on race, equity, and students at U.S. colleges and universities. He teaches in the Graduate School of Education, Africana Studies, and Gender Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where he founded and serves as executive director of the Center for the Study of Race & Equity in Education. He is author of over 100 peer-reviewed journal articles and other academic publications, and recipient of nearly $12 million in research grants. Johns Hopkins University Press is publishing Race Matters in College, Harper’s 13th book. The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Chronicle of Higher Education, and over 11,000 other newspapers have quoted Harper and featured his research. He has been interviewed on CNN, ESPN, and NPR, and is president-elect of the Association for the Study of Higher Education.

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Against The Motion

Jason Stanley

Professor of Philosophy, Yale University

Jason Stanley is the Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale University. Before coming to Yale in 2013, he was Distinguished Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Rutgers University. He has also been a professor at the University of Michigan and Cornell University. Stanley has published four books, two in epistemology, one in philosophy of language and semantics, and one in social and political philosophy. His first book is Knowledge and Practical Interests, published in 2005 by Oxford University Press. It was the winner of the 2007 American Philosophical Association book prize. His second book, Language in Context, published in 2007 by OUP, is a collection of his papers in semantics on the topic of linguistic communication and context. His third book, Know How, was published by OUP in 2011. Stanley’s fourth book, How Propaganda Works, was published by Princeton University Press in 2015. Stanley earned his PhD from MIT.

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Declared Winner: For The Motion

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Voting Breakdown:

63% voted the same way in both pre - and post-debate votes(43% voted FOR Twice, 16% voted AGAINST Twice, 4% voted UNDECIDED Twice). 37% changed their minds (9% voted AGAINST then changed to FOR, 15% voted UNDECIDED then changed to FOR, 4% voted FOR then changed to AGAINST, 5% voted UNDECIDED then changed to AGAINST, 2% voted FOR then changed to UNDECIDED, 2% voted AGAINST then changed to UNDECIDED)| Breakdown Graphic

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    • Comment Link AJ Thursday, 09 June 2016 00:53 posted by AJ

      I think the debate was skewed from the get-go. In framing it as whether or not freedom of speech is threatened, you position freedom of speech as the most important thing to consider while seeking to argue about the conflict between freedom of speech and equality. Had this debate been titled "is equality threatened on campus" we may well have had a very different result.

    • Comment Link Benignuman Wednesday, 01 June 2016 18:03 posted by Benignuman

      Somewhat disappointed with those arguing for the motion. The most important point was not stressed: There is a clear difference between disagreeing with someone and prohibiting or preventing them from speaking. One is an exercise of free speech and one is diminishing free speech.

      This is not that difficult: Protesting a speaker = good. Shouting down a speaker = bad. Pressuring the university to withdraw an invitation = bad. Asking the university for a rebuttal speaker = good.

    • Comment Link Richard Thursday, 28 April 2016 11:52 posted by Richard

      Didn't you try this topic a couple years ago talking specifically about liberals limiting free speech? I remember that one being a mess, too, where everyone was arguing about the definitions and not the substance. The proposition is tautologically true; free speech is under some threat in literally every institution, organization, and culture on Earth, and a failure to clarify what level of threat is "threatened" made this a tough debate to listen to.

    • Comment Link Mike Wednesday, 27 April 2016 14:34 posted by Mike

      A couple of thoughts come to mind after listening to the podcast version of the debate --
      1) Is free speech threatened when a sense of decency is ignored? No, I'm not thinking of Donald Trump. Recently, Tzipi Livni, the Israeli politician, spoke at Harvard Law School and was asked why she is "smelly"? Should that be defended under free speech as many are?
      2) A number of years ago, a local college in the Grand Rapids, MI area invited a speaker well known for calling Jews 'Nazis'. I questioned the college for inviting this person when, of course, they would never invite a person known to call African-Americans the 'n' word. Was I trying to restrict free speech? Does a university threaten free speech when it does not allow speakers who use the 'n'word?
      Free speech does not go so far as to allow yelling 'fire' in a crowded theatre. Similarly, university leaders should expect a minimal sense of decency in its speech code. Yes, we live at a time when Trump is succeeding as a presidential candidate by ignoring all sense of decency. Is that defensible? If so, then we need more Joseph Welches, the army lawyer who famously stood up to Joe McCarthy when he said, "at long last, have you no sense of decency?" While a strong 1st amendment advocate, it does not seem unreasonable to me that minimal limits such as in the examples above be in place while not threatening free speech on campus.

    • Comment Link Michael Temkin Tuesday, 26 April 2016 14:02 posted by Michael Temkin

      @Alan Roberts, it is not the "Israeli lobby", it's the "Anti-Israeli lobby" that has been causing the issues and causing the "chill". The protestors should have been allowed to peacefully protest, as is their right, however once they infringed upon the rights of free speech, they were in the wrong. The University showed either their fear or their intolerance by not allowing the police to do their job. The people that caused the "public disturbance" should have been arrested and jailed.

    • Comment Link Bruce Eckland Wednesday, 20 April 2016 03:34 posted by Bruce Eckland

      Maybe this has been commented on before, but...

      There was mention of someone being de-invited to speak because of student protests. Recently I heard of such happening at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. As I recall, the proposed speaker was indeed from the political right, but perhaps the bigger issue was that the proposed speaker was to be paid a considerable fee for the speech. At least some felt that the speaker wasn't worth the money (and probably few to any would be).

      I suspect the proposed speaker would have been welcome to speak for free or a reasonable fee. Speaking for free would be a major boost to one being allowed to speak freely.

      If a widely regarded crackpot was offered $100,000 to speak at a University, wouldn't the only sane thing for the students et all to do, would to protest the speaker's appearance? I think so.

    • Comment Link bern rein Saturday, 02 April 2016 23:36 posted by bern rein

      Freedom of speech is a Constitutional (legal) right to express ones ideas in public. It is also a privilege that has been given "space" by Universities as an intrinsic principle of their institutional constitution. It was traditionally founded on the philosophical argument that knowledge of truth and the good is attained by the free and fervent examination of the oral or symbolic expression of ideas, which is thought to be tantamount to an examination of ourselves-increasing the understanding of the world, others, and us. It is largely what "enlightenment" is supposed to be all about. It is understandably adopted by Universities (the so-called "temples" of knowledge) as a "sacrosanct" cornerstone. The legal right means protection by law from harm or threat of harm for expressing one's opinions in public. In Universities (private and public) it means a policy of not discriminating against the free expression of opinion. Inhibition to free speech include, among other things, physically barring a person from speaking, harming or threatening to harm a person as a result of their speech, or causing a person to suffer damage to his/her property (which could include damage to their source of livelihood) as a consequence of their speech. These practices would be anti-free speech and should be against, by definition, the policy of all universities. Anti-free speech includes speech itself if it can be shown to cause the above harmful outcomes. However, free speech does not include protection from oppositional speech, no matter how strong, offensive, or ill-informed, that does not precipitate the above harmful outcomes. Although one can prevent or inhibit, to some extent, a person from expressing their opinion in one's own private home or enterprise, society has cherished the University's function of creating the space where this freedom is protected as a matter of principle. Whether or not aggressively petitioning for the prohibition of a speaker from campus or for the dismissal of a professor whose speech is found by some to be offensive and harmful constitutes a harmful act is a timely subject matter, that screams for debate. There is a reason why these incidences are occurring on campuses - where else is there the "space" for such expression? However, it is highly controversial and potentially incendiary subject matter and demands vigilant and prudent moderating by University faculties and administrations. There is danger but there is also opportunity.

    • Comment Link Alan Roberts Friday, 01 April 2016 19:56 posted by Alan Roberts

      I think Cameo Red is right on. They need a specific issue to discuss. The hottest debate on campuses is the right of free speech in criticizing Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians. Or the right to promote the B.D.S. movement. This was the subject of a recent U. California headline-making policy controversy.

      It's incredible that this issue wasn't even raised as an example. Goes to indicate the chill brought to campuses from the minions of the Israel lobby.

    • Comment Link Chris Wednesday, 30 March 2016 10:13 posted by Chris

      Great debate (mostly on the FOR side). Professor Stanley's views and narratives actually support the FOR side more :)

      Shaun Harper's views (and seeming inability to respond to questions on point, and to be cognizant of the threats that his views and those like his, AS PRACTICED on campus) will continue to exacerbate the current chilling environment for free speech on campus.

      With all due respect, Shaun Harper's department may be what may be characterized as part of the "Civil Rights Industrial Complex". The "Executive Director" title might as well be "Thought-Police Chief".

      I am from China. FYI, there are many Thought-Polices in China. They are everywhere. People are fed-up.

    • Comment Link Kevinsl Thursday, 24 March 2016 01:10 posted by Kevinsl

      From a purely competitive standpoint, the team arguing against the motion were completely overpowered. We all "feel" things, but hard data reflects reality and can't be easily explained away. The team arguing for the motion were far superior in every respect. It was a textbook performance on their part.

    • Comment Link Mark Iacovetta Tuesday, 22 March 2016 03:14 posted by Mark Iacovetta

      Wasn't the introduction speech by Shaun Harper about Damian, go against what he is arguing. He said that Damian embarrassed when being called out for being a black student that received a perfect score. Shouldn't Damian have called out the professor for insulting him, shouldn't he have exercised this free speech?

    • Comment Link Daniel Sunday, 20 March 2016 12:08 posted by Daniel

      Case in point

      Fox News: University of Kansas professor keeps job after using racial slur in class

      "Then she noted that unlike on other campuses where there had been visible racist acts and assaults, she had not seen the racial slur — she used the actual slur — spray-painted on walls at KU."

    • Comment Link Dave Wednesday, 16 March 2016 19:56 posted by Dave

      I have found it rather amusing that almost all the participants in these IQ squared debates are "leftists" and when a "right" leaning viewpoint is argued, it is argued from one of the left leaning panelists that try to encourage some discourse. I would for once like to see an intelligent conservative on the panel. Or is that an oxymoron?

    • Comment Link Julie Stroeve Wednesday, 16 March 2016 15:40 posted by Julie Stroeve

      When I think of free speech, I think of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that gives Americans the right to burn the flag, protest against unprovoked war, raise the social consciousness around inequitable judicial systems and institutionalized racism, among others. It means that we have the right to say things that may be offensive to others; but it doesn't mean that we can do physical harm to others either. If students can't speak freely on publicly financed colleges and universities, then we don't have a First Amendment anymore. It doesn't mean that money is free speech either. Money is money. Speech is speech. Let's have a civil conversation around what free speech is before we talk about ending it on college campuses.

    • Comment Link Leo Stanley Tuesday, 15 March 2016 17:40 posted by Leo Stanley

      I think the crux of this debate is well represented in the question about the Facebook protest page regarding an unpopular figure coming to campus.

      As Shaun Harper stated, it is the individual's prerogative to silence themselves in the face of criticism of their own speech. The speaker's speech is not threatened by a group of people who don't want to hear what you have to say. Yes, it's true that these protesters want to deny the unpopular speaker their ability to speak on campus, which is anti-free speech, but we cannot let our disdain for close-mindedness cloud the fact that, short of violence or threats of violence, this is also a valid form of free speech.

      Ms Kaminer's example regarding the students who wanted a "safe space" during the feminist debate regarding rape culture is another example of how our own disdain for the absurd might mislead us. The debate was not cancelled, nor were the debaters threatened, and although I might be of the opinion that these particular individuals are too sensitive and perhaps also anti-free speech, that doesn't mean they are a threat to the free speech as much as it means I think their positions are ridiculous.

      The debate premise should have been reframed as something like "Campus culture is hostile to discussion of uncomfortable ideas".

      Either way great debate, this is a difficult topic with a lot of nuance.

    • Comment Link Paul Cassidy Monday, 14 March 2016 00:08 posted by Paul Cassidy

      Shaun Harper's story about Damien is the worst story of racist conduct by a faculty member that I've heard of in a long career of university teaching. Which makes me wonder how relevant it is. Is it supposed to be representative of something? Indeed, one can reasonably wonder whether it happened.

    • Comment Link Jody Hersom Sunday, 13 March 2016 22:15 posted by Jody Hersom

      He said that “justice is complicated” and not so “black and white,” and that students need to be careful about what they call “micro aggressions” or racism, as even those accusations are open to debate.

    • Comment Link bub Sunday, 13 March 2016 14:03 posted by bub

      The fact that the violent hostility against Israel wasn't even mentioned shows how deep the political correctness problem is. It is absolutely impossible to host speaker that doesn't direct deep hatred toward Israel on these campuses. Anti-semitism is far higher than any other bigotry. This is a real problem

    • Comment Link Seth Wittner Wednesday, 09 March 2016 23:26 posted by Seth Wittner

      Shaun Harper seems to think that any time a student of color tells a (presumably) white person that some remark seems racist (an adjective whose definition has changed enormously over the decades), that white person has a chance to learn. Really? Every person of color who takes exception to a remark or action/inaction is always right? That offended person will always be educating the offending party? That doesn't sound right. And notice how he made no mention of Jews, a very small minority group that is being more and more frequently attacked on campuses.

      And there it is again: in Shaun Harper's closing statement, he talked about thousands of people of color, females, LGBT people telling him about offensive remarks made to them. Nothing about Jews. They don't exist....or maybe it's just that Shaun Harper and his like-minded people are OK with slurs and worse toward Jews. The one group it's still OK to slander and offend.

    • Comment Link LSS Tuesday, 08 March 2016 18:04 posted by LSS

      Shaun Harper argues that calling someone a racist or protesting against someone's coming to campus to lecture is itself evidence of free speech and represents an honest "invitation to engage in debate." I have never heard anything more facetious and absurd.

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