On Free Expression and Western's Values

Many in the Western campus community have become accustomed to receiving emails and campus announcements via Western Today with updates on new initiatives, budgetary issues, aspirational opportunities and other important news.  In an effort to hear more of your suggestions and concerns for our future, I’ve started this blog as a way to engage in more community dialogue.  I will occasionally write about issues that transcend our individual concerns and benefit from collective wisdom, and I encourage you to share your comments for the good of the community.

It is nearly impossible for any president to over-communicate to the campus community; it is also impossible for one person or team to have all the answers.  I welcome your partnership in addressing the challenges we face ahead.  We are stronger when we listen to one another and work together for progress. 




On Free Expression and Western’s Values

Some of the most urgent and sensitive issues in higher education lie at the complex intersection of free expression (here, I use free expression synonymously with free speech), campus safety, and the respectful exchange of ideas. These complexities are reflected in Western’s distinctive mission and character as well. As a public institution, we are bound to observe state and federal laws regarding free expression. As a university, a central part of our mission is to prepare students for professional life and citizenship by teaching and modeling how to engage with, and converse around, controversial ideas. And, as a tightly knit campus community that cares deeply about our most vulnerable members, we are committed to inclusion, and affirming the fundamental dignity and respect that people of all identities deserve. 

To that end, we have developed a website Regarding Public Expression and Assembly, which makes clear Western’s values, policies, and principles with regard to where, when, and how expression at Western can be regulated—and where it cannot.  These boundaries are provided by federal and state law, by our commitment to a campus free from discrimination and harassment, and by our responsibility to provide a supportive and inclusive learning environment in which we welcome respectful yet challenging engagement with controversial issues. 

The right to free expression is fundamental to our University’s commitment to open discourse and academic freedom. At the same time it is important to recognize that the benefits and burdens of free expression are not shared equally. The way we see the world is shaped by our background and circumstances. Just as it is easy to be tolerant of speech we agree with, so it is easy to defend unfettered free speech from positions of privilege and power. This of course is not to say that the right to free expression should not be universal, or should be expanded for some and curtailed for others. Rather, it is to acknowledge that a crucial part of living with others in a free and open society lies in exercising our rights to free expression with civility, empathy, and an awareness of history.

That, of course, is the subtle and difficult work of shaping culture, and it is not something that can be imposed in an authoritarian manner. At Western and at all universities, the power of education must show the way to genuine acceptance and understanding, and to a recognition of our shared humanity, as well as the diversity of our identities, backgrounds, and thoughts. Western is committed to building a safe, authentically inclusive environment in which all people have the opportunity to reach their full potential. As we build a more diverse and inclusive university, it is important to recognize that, as a learning community, we seek to understand the tensions between what appear to be unresolvable contradictions, that free expression and academic freedom are central to the mission of colleges and universities, and that “…civility and tolerance are hallmarks of educated men and women.” (AAUP statement On Freedom of Expression and Campus Code Speech)

I welcome your comments and thoughts.



Thanks for these thoughtful comments. I think they make a good start expressing the opportunities, contradictions and difficulties of maintaining free speech on a university campus. My only suggestion would be that it stays very abstract and jargon-loaded, and might explain better by getting somewhat more specific in places. Here are some thoughts that might help, if not in the policy itself, at least in your explanations and public presentations:

Free speech is seldom an issue until someone is offended. Tolerating free speech, then, often means tolerating something that seems directly offensive, to you and/or others. In an academic setting, our obligation is to make sure that speakers are allowed their say, and that discussion proceeds in an orderly and open way, welcoming rebuttals, supporting comments, or whatever arises, offering the opportunity for all present to ask questions and conduct arguments.

Hate speech is insulting, and therefore harmful. While our impulse might be to ban it, our obligation is rather to welcome argument, and where that might be difficult for some of those who are in harms way, and who may have difficulty speaking out, to provide that argument. Getting in the habit of banning speech that someone (anyone) is offended by is a slippery slope that can spell disaster for the free and open inquiry, research, teaching and learning that should characterize any competent university.

At the same time, we must recognize that understanding a controversial speaker's views and rebutting them requires the ability to listen to them and respond with apt and well-informed argument. An essential part of a good liberal education is developing these abilities, and exercising them until they grow strong. We must take special care in classrooms and public forums on campus to support that exercise and that growth. These are vital abilities for citizens in a democracy,
because no democracy can exist where there is no disagreement. In order to improve society, we must be able to talk with and work with those who disagree with us.

I'm sure none of this new to you, but I hope you find some of it useful.

Dan Larner
Emeritus Professor of Theatre
Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies
Dean of the College 1982-1989
Former Board member (for ~40 years) of the
American Civil Liberties Union of Washington

In my remarks or 10/9/17, in my paragraph on hate speech, the second sentence should read as follows: "While our impulse might be to ban it, our obligation is rather to welcome argument, and where that might be difficult for some of us who are in harms way, and who may have difficulty speaking out, we need to offer support for that speaking out, and to help provide that argument."