Students worry free speech will make U of M ‘an unsafe place’

The University of Minnesota Senate has punted on a proposed affirmation of free speech principles, postponing the decision until fall amid concerns that the document includes protections for “hateful” speech.

The “ Four Core Principles” of free speech were drafted by law professor Dale Carpenter, and are based upon the University of Chicago’s “Chicago Statement,” which has been adopted in various forms by several major universities, including Yale, Princeton, and Purdue.

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According to City Pages, however, the document encountered resistance at U of M, where student and faculty leaders ridiculed it for disavowing punishments for offensive speech, expressing concerns that without adequate consequences for hate speech, the university could develop a reputation as “an unsafe place” for some students.

The first principle states that “a public university must be absolutely committed to protecting free speech, both for constitutional and academic reasons,” explaining that this “goes beyond mere First Amendment compliance,” applying equally to the right of individuals to express themselves without disruption from other community members.

Next, Carpenter asserts that “free speech includes protection for speech that some find offensive, uncivil, or even hateful,” though he points out in an op-ed for The Washington Post that this does not include forms of expression like incitement, defamation, or threats, all of which the Supreme Court has identified as exceptions to the Constitution’s guarantee of free speech.

“The shock, hurt, and anger experienced by the targets of malevolent speech may undermine the maintenance of a campus climate that welcomes all and fosters equity and diversity,” Carpenter acknowledges. “But at a public university, no word is so blasphemous or offensive it cannot be uttered; no belief is so sacred or widely held it cannot be criticized; no idea is so intolerant it cannot be tolerated. So long as the speech is constitutionally protected, and neither harasses nor threatens another person, it cannot be prohibited.”

The third principle addresses the argument advanced by some that universities should seek to level the playing field by restricting the speech of those perceived as having greater access to mediums of expression, saying that while there is nothing wrong with using institutional resources to provide outlets for differing viewpoints, “university officials, like government officials, cannot assume the authority to pick and choose who may speak or how much they may speak based on the perception that some speakers have ‘too much’ or ‘too little’ power in public debate.”

The document concludes by clarifying that “even when protecting free speech conflicts with other important University values, free speech must be paramount,” arguing that the appropriate response to offensive ideas is not to silence them, but to “rebut them with better ideas” through civil discourse.

“The University does not condone speech that is uncivil or hateful, and Universities officials should make this clear,” Carpenter writes. “Nevertheless, on those rare occasions when protecting expression conflicts with other values, like maintaining a climate of mutual respect on campus, the right to speak must prevail.”

Carpenter’s proposal initially gained traction with faculty members, securing the Faculty Consultative Committee’s endorsement in a 7-2 vote on March 10, but subsequently came under fire from student government groups, notably the Council of Graduate Students (COGS), which issued a harsh condemnation of the free speech principles in March.

Members of COGS were upset with the overall tone of the document, but were particularly incensed by the suggestion that ideas should be allowed to rise and fall on their own merits, which they claimed conflicts with a commitment to inclusivity.

“The [document] is pompous and condescending,” graduate student Jonathan Borowsky, who authored COGS’s response to the proposal, told The Minnesota Daily, adding that the “better ideas” component is especially demeaning because it implies that there is a “right way” to engage in free speech.

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COGS also took issue with the document’s assertion that hate speech is within the bounds of free speech, even if it conflicts with one of the university’s values.

The document should have more “compassion for those who are hurt by hate speech or whose views aren’t heard because of prejudice or lack of power,” Borowsky suggested in an email to Inside Higher Ed, contending that an “absolute commitment to respecting free speech doesn't bind you to a completely hands-off, ‘let the chips fall where they may’ attitude.”

The Undergraduate Student Senate addressed the topic as well at its April 7 meeting, during which several senators sided with Borowsky and COGS, with one saying Carpenter’s “better ideas” clause “marginalizes those who are not well spoken or who use English as their second language.”

Another student requested that Carpenter clarify his use of the word “hateful,” explaining that “minority communities are usually the ones affected by what is called ‘hate speech.’”

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Taking the argument a step further, another senator insisted that there must be “consequences for hate speech,” lest the university cultivate a reputation as “an unsafe place for some students.”

The document was subsequently addressed by the full University Senate—which includes faculty, academic professionals, civil service staff, and student representatives from all five campuses in the U of M system—during its final meeting of the year on May 5, but the Senate adjourned without taking a vote, leaving the free speech principles in a state of limbo until at least the fall semester.

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