Higher Education Watch
Students Seek to Recover Berkeley Free Speech Tradition

This shouldn’t be news, but it is: A group of college students are making a stand for liberal values, and for the importance of listening to, rather than shouting down, disagreeable ideas. Inside Higher Education reports:

Over the weekend, 25 students from about 20 colleges around the country gathered at the University of Chicago to try to start a movement in which students would become leading defenders of free speech on campus — including speech that they find offensive. The students issued a statement Sunday that they plan to urge other students to sign and to abide by.

“The Free Speech Movement began as an entirely student-led initiative,” says the statement, referring to the University of California, Berkeley, movement of the 1960s. “However, free speech has been increasingly undermined by attempts of students and administrators alike to silence those with whom they disagree. We seek to reclaim that original tradition.”

The statement goes on to say, “A central purpose of education is to teach students to challenge themselves and engage with opposing perspectives. Our ability to listen to, wrestle with and ultimately decide between contending viewpoints fosters mutual understanding as well as personal and societal growth. The active defense of free and open discourse is crucial for our society to continue to thrive as a democracy premised on the open debate of ideas.”

We’ve been complimentary of efforts by faculty, administrators, and outside groups to defend freedom of speech in higher education. But most of today’s threats to open discourse in academia come from the bottom up, rather than the top down: From a vocal group of militantly anti-liberal students who overpower those who are disengaged or indifferent. If the current tide of academic intolerance is to be beaten, it will be because students who believe in a free society persuade a critical mass of their peers. The 25 students who met in Chicago over the weekend have the right idea; hopefully others will join their ranks.

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