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Speaker: Free Speech Is Essential To University’s Mission

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Michael Spooneybarger/ CREO
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Dr. Keith Whittington, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton University speaks at the University of West Florida Tuesday March 22, 2017 in Pensacola, Florida.

The University of West Florida's Department of Government played host to Dr. Keith Whittington, professor of politics at Princeton University, on March 21.

In his presentation, "Why Free Speech is Central to the Mission of a University," Whittington explained that while controversial speech on campus is not a new topic, it’s one that the educational community needs to discuss, as pressure to limit speech can come from all sides.

“The pressure to restrict free speech on campus comes sometimes from the right and sometimes from the left,” he said. “Sometimes the pressure comes from parents and donors and administrators and sometimes from students and faculty.”

Limiting speech on campus is in direct opposition to what modern universities are supposed to do, Whittington said.

“The mission of a university is to produce and disseminate knowledge,” he said. “Free speech is essential to that mission. Universities are diverse institutions that must use conversation to promote scholarship.”

Whittington said universities should welcome all views.

“Critics often do us the favor of letting us know that our opinions are incorrect,” he said. “Rather than dismissing them, we should evaluate criticisms on their merits.”

Whittington said that balance is key. While embracing the ideals of free speech, it is also important for universities to decide what is and isn’t acceptable.

“Universities must expose students to different ideas,” he said. “There is value to both thick and thin models on campus.”

In a thick safe space, students can exclude dissenting voices to build better understanding of their own opinions.

Thin safe spaces, such as public lectures or free speech zones, allow civil discourse where there is open interaction between speakers and students.

Whittington argued that universities should embrace a mix of the two, with both thick and thin safe spaces, where students and faculty engage with both the like-minded and dissenters.

“I think an evenhanded approach is best – a system in which the guidelines are negotiated,” he said.

As more protests erupt on campuses across the country over controversial ideas, Whittington made clear that it is important that respect is paid to all ideas.

“Free speech only thrives under an orderly process,” he said. “Everyone needs to be heard.”

Noting recent incidents at the University of California, Berkeley and Middlebury College where protesters shut down speaking engagements, Whittington said that though protesters certainly had a right to be heard, their actions were in direct opposition to the idea of free speech.

“Protesters have a responsibility to present ideas, not create obstructions,” he said. “We need to foster environments where all ideas can be laid bare, even those that create discomfort.”