Free Expression on College Campuses (Opinion)
Dear Skidmore students,
Since freedom of speech has proved to be a contentious topic on college campuses nationwide, it has become evident to me that we should rethink how to approach those individuals whose opinions differ from our own. As a current junior here at Skidmore, I have observed first-hand for some time now the steadfast commitment of some to dismiss others without ever listening to their arguments. We must realize that although we are but one community, we are of multiple and differing minds. What I hope for Skidmore College is that we as a student body will respect and appreciate what the tradition of academic liberty of expression has given to us: the opportunity to exchange freely opposing perspectives, if not for the good of our community as a whole, then for our own intellectual growth and development.
I am aware that the prospect of condoning constitutionally-protected free speech at Skidmore College might be a concern for some of you, yet it is important to note the distinction between protecting this type of speech and that which is commonly labeled as “hate speech,” which is to be viewed critically and, in extreme cases, to be condemned. Students, professors, and anyone else visiting campus should be able to discuss topics free from intimidation and from attack—whether that be verbal, which might incite hateful action, or physical.
There have been two events, in particular, that have occurred at Skidmore within the past two years that motivate me today to write this short essay: the reflexive decision to cancel class the day following the 2016 Presidential Election, and the impetuous reaction by some students to prevent the sender of a leaked “racist” email from speaking at our campus. Such events, I know, have touched some personally, which is why I do not deny the pain, anger, and confusion some of us felt and still feel. Those emotions matter. But why not let them guide us to increased conversation, inquiry, and debate? Instead, we seem to no longer value one of our most essential, and most liberating, constitutional rights.
It is therefore apparent that we must thoroughly consider the viewpoint of our opponent. Even if we know they are wrong, we should not hamper their speech out of fear that those listening will be influenced. In fact, by silencing such a voice we may lose “the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error."
My final point for now is that most of what people say, in general, is not the full truth. And just because something isn’t completely true, doesn’t mean that it is completely wrong. At times, this realization may lead us and our rivals to unexpected common ground. Even Hobbes and Locke, who have opposing views on how man is in the state of nature, agree that man is naturally inclined to preserve his own life. Thus, it is essential that we create and maintain an open dialogue with our adversaries—as long as that dialogue gives equal voice to both sides—and to not instantly denounce them as corrupt, immoral, or downright evil.
Who knows? They just might have something instructive to say.
If you are interested in exploring the topic of freedom of expression on college campuses, please stay posted. I am organizing debates and reading groups to be held in the upcoming weeks. My goal is to start and maintain a dialogue on this matter at Skidmore College.