On Friday, Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity Michele Minter moderated a panel that focused on the responsibility of universities to enforce individual rights to expression and protection.
Panelists included Vice President and General Counsel at Northern Illinois University Jerry Blakemore ’76, Vice President for Ethics and Compliance at Purdue University Alysa Christmas Rollock ’81, freelance journalist Christopher Shea ’91 and Program Coordinator for the Office of Dean of Undergraduate Students Jeanne Laymon ’11.
In her opening statement, Minter explained that the University has a deep commitment to freedom of expression and the prohibition of discrimination.
“What we are seeing now, culturally, is a moment where those two important values are sometimes coming into conflict,” she said.
Shea explained that the most pervasive issues on American college campuses have included the "disinvitation" of controversial speakers, the creation of safe spaces for students, restrictions on microaggressions and the disbandment of fraternities conducting racist actions.
He explained that during his time as an investigative journalist on different college campuses, he noticed a trend in how students interacted with notions of safety in relation to free speech.
“Students use the rhetoric of safety to describe how they want to feel on campus, and it applies not just to physical safety but to words that make them feel unsafe on campus," Shea said.
Shea said at the University, he interviewed students and professors in hopes of finding diverging viewpoints on the necessity of protective safety. For example, in an interview with Robert George, professor of jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program, George stated that he would be willing to engage with a Nazi for the sake of discourse, signalling his commitment to freedom of expression, Shea added.
According to Shea, University students noted that protective safety is not a question of comfort but is instead a question of not wanting to be targeted for certain beliefs that may stand out from those of their peers.
Blakemore added that as a University student in the ’70s, he protested the presence on campus of speaker William Shockley, a physicist who published papers which supported eugenics. However, Blakemore noted that his current opinion on freedom of expression differs from the one he once held.
“My position as a student was very different to my position as a general counsel, and that is because I am obligated to follow the law,” Blakemore said.
Blakemore advocated a two-pronged strategy for future administrative action by the University, explaining that, because there are tensions between individual and collective rights on campus, both the ideals of freedom of expression and conceptions of safety zones should be respected.
“The campus has become an incredibly tense place… there is almost tension between the individuals on this campus and [“Rights, Rules, Responsibilities”] as a governing body," Laymon explained.
Rollock further noted that both conservatives and progressives use freedom of expression as a sword and shield and that everyone wants to be protected from speech they don’t like.
“As we look at these issues we have to be sensitive that we don’t patronize or trivialize the real feelings of our current students and members of our community,” said Rollock.
The panel concluded with a consideration of the protection of anonymous hate speech posted on digital platforms like social media sites.
Rollock stated that anonymous views, both those of minority and majority populations, should be protected equally.
Shea added that there do exist mitigating solutions to anonymous hate-speech. He explained that vox.com, for example, does not allow comments on articles as a means of limiting people’s ability to anonymously discriminate against and harass others.
The panel, “Who Gets to Say? Free Speech on Campuses Today,” was sponsored by the Alumni Association of Princeton University and took place at 10:30 a.m. on Friday in Alexander Hall, Richardson Auditorium.