April 29, 2016

Free Speech and Mutual Respect

To the Anteater Community:

At the beginning of every academic year, I send out a message to the campus regarding our common commitment to the protection of free speech and the need for all of us to foster a culture in which we engage each other with mutual respect.

Such a culture is, of course, essential to the development of a scholarly, academic community.

We are at a university because we have a genuine desire to engage competing perspectives and learn from those who have different views and experiences. When we disagree, we are resolved to deepen the conversation rather than suspend it. We use reason and evidence in working through disagreements. We are patient and curious when people articulate unusual or counterintuitive views.

These practices are our distinctive contribution to society. We understand that people often have a legal right to be uncivil if they choose to be, but no academic community can exist if we are mostly yelling at each other rather than talking and listening.

Free speech – without question. But also – positive engagement and mutual respect.

This means that when members of our community are subjected to hateful, discriminatory and inflammatory personal attacks, we speak out in support of them. The same First Amendment that protects offensive and even hateful speech also protects our right to oppose and condemn speech that is inconsistent with our values.

Needless to say, however, one person’s offensive speech is sometimes another person’s legitimate challenge to our wrongheaded views. Such is life in a free and diverse society.

As we carry out the remainder of the academic year, I ask you to remember our shared commitment to respect the voices of those with whom you may disagree. Universities exist to provide the conditions for hard thought and difficult debate so that individuals can develop the capacity for independent judgment. This cannot happen if we shield people from ideas and opinions they might find unwelcome, or if members of the university community try to silence or interfere with speakers with whom they disagree.

When members of our community attempt to disrupt business or authorized events, or prevent members of our community or invited speakers from expressing their views, our obligation must be to defend those who would otherwise be silenced. There is no free speech right to shout down your opponents.

As always, let our contribution to the world be that we, as members of a great university, address our disagreements in a way that leads to engagement instead of enmity, to inclusion instead of isolation.

Fiat Lux,

Chancellor Howard Gillman