An Overview of the "Free Speech on Campus" Event Friday, Feb. 9

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On Friday, Feb. 9, Claremont McKenna College held a “Free Speech on Campus” event in which a series of panels led by various professors from all over the country was held throughout the day. The event was hosted by the Salvatori Center in an effort to spur constructive discussion about free speech at the Claremont Colleges. The conference may have been in response to the protests at the Athenaeum in April, where 250 protestors shut down a talk from conservative speaker Heather MacDonald. Consequently, five students were suspended from the College and President Hiram Chodosh released a statement affirming his commitment to protecting free speech on campus.

There were a total of four panels, one of which was student-led and all of which focused on some aspect of free speech in relation to higher education. Each discussion was comprised of four panelists and one moderator. The panelists were given approximately ten minutes to deliver their arguments, and the rest of the time consisted of follow-up questions from the other panelists or audience members. Fewer attendees turned out for the panel than for a typical CMC Ath talk, but the audience members, both students and professors, seemed engaged.

The first panel attempted to answer the question, “Is Free Speech Central to Higher Education?” while the second panel centered on “Contemporary Challenges.” A third panel, led by CMC juniors and sophomores, presented the findings of a survey taken by 180 CMC students who expressed their views on the role of free speech on campus.

“Liberal Education and Free Speech” was the final panel of the day. CMC Government Professor Mark Blitz used his ten minutes to approach free speech from a philosophical standpoint and stated that universities should emphasize the desirability of free speech for free speech itself. Blitz mentioned that we do not censor our own thoughts, nor would we want to, so we should not place restrictions on any discussion that takes place in a more public forum either.

Aurelian Craiutu, a professor at Indiana University, spoke about the “art of disagreement” and took the most unyielding stance on free speech. According to Craiutu, even hate speech, as much as we might detest it, is protected by the First Amendment. He also referenced the protests at Middlebury College when author Charles Murray was prevented from speaking and thus forced to deliver his talk through a livestream, similar to what occurred with the Heather MacDonald protests.

Roosevelt Montas, a professor at Columbia University and the only person of color on the panel, decided to address the reasons that free speech has become such a contentious topic on college campuses. Overall, Montas agreed with giving leeway to free speech but said that we must acknowledge people who genuinely feel intimidated. The difficulty, according to Montas, is that “it’s almost impossible to tell when a person is claiming genuine psychological trauma.”  

The final panelist, Professor Susan McWilliams from Pomona College, stated that “free speech is the symptom and not the cause” of a larger problem in which students, as well as society in general, have forgotten how to argue well. Her main point was that educators should focus on “the underlying habits and practices that sustain democratic life,” or give students the tools they need to argue effectively and properly. In response to Professor Blitz, she mentioned the possibility of thinking freely without speaking freely, a form of self-censorship that should transpire in the context of respecting others.

A final point from the panel chair, Professor Jamel Velji, focused on respecting the various identities of people. He stated that, although free speech is important, harmful rhetoric can absolutely be detrimental to a liberal education. In the religious studies courses he teaches about Islamic culture and history, Velji spends the initial period of the course “deprogramming” the students to leave behind negative perceptions, a necessary action to obtain any deeper level of understanding.

Although the professors differed in some respects, there was a general consensus that free speech is central to a liberal arts education.