My View: Free Speech on College Campuses

Pittsburgh Quarterly Op Ed
April, 2018
By, Eric J. Barron, President, Penn State University

Our nation is experiencing a re-emergence of hate speech and explicit bias. Significantly, hate speech has also been actuated, through internet trolls and efforts to bait individuals into emotional or physical reactions. On our campuses, the reactions have been strong, as our students express considerable levels of discomfort and a real sense of vulnerability based on race, ethnicity, religion, politics and sexual orientation. Students, faculty and staff are increasingly calling for actions to silence hate speech. National surveys suggest that more students than ever are willing to give up aspects of free speech in order to create a more civil, less vulnerable environment.

We are witnessing the collision between the value of free speech and our values of inclusion, and our desire to provide a successful environment for all students.

We cease to be centers of learning if we cannot stand up for discussing difficult issues. We must always stand up for free speech — it is a fundamental right and ensures that our ideas find their way into the marketplace of society. As Justice Douglas recognized, speech may provoke emotions and cause discomfort, but this may serve a useful purpose if it then causes us to strike out at injustices, prejudices and preconceptions. But, we must also give our students the tools to fend off those who troll and bait, to stand up for free speech by using our voices to speak out clearly and forcefully against hate as we fulfill our moral obligation to be inclusive and educate the people of our Commonwealth, the nation, and beyond.