From the Left: How ‘free’ is free speech on college campuses?

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By Lance Simmens

We humans have a predilection for conflict that clearly is defined by right and wrong, good and evil, best and worst. It is a paradigm that lends itself to extremes. Some cultures and governments have striven to construct organizing principles that encourage middle ground and compromise that allows for at least an attempt to move society in an incremental and cautious way. This is the essence of a democratic society. Others opt to favor autocratic mechanisms that are more susceptible to rapid change but often through forced violence.

In the modern world, we are witnessing a collision between these two distinctly different options. It is not impossible to engage in a high level of civil debate over pros and cons of these markedly different options, but it is a valiant struggle. Witness the two seminal wartime actions affecting Ukraine and Gaza; it is to say the least virtually spellbinding to even imagine how a negotiated truce could come about anytime soon, yet we are bound to engage in peace talks at some point in time, hopefully the sooner the better.

Today our college campuses have become breeding grounds for the latest eruption of protests pitting pro-Palestinian versus pro-Israeli wartime actions in the Gaza Strip, where over 17,000 Palestinian civilians, largely women and children, have been killed and over half the hostages that set off the firestorm remain in captivity. The stunning level of atrocities and inhumanity accompanying actions first on Oct. 7 and up until this day find blame that can adequately be spread around, and there is little doubt that the stench of violence will permeate through generations of civilians and their families and never again will be a siren call to both sides.

In recent testimony, the presidents of Harvard, Penn, and MIT, three of the most prominent elite institutions of learning in the world, flunked their Congressional tests when it came to discussing how their respective institutions were handling threats on campus against Jewish, Muslim, pro-Israeli, and Palestinian students. In short, navigating free speech when pitted against wartime atrocities has become a minefield on college campuses, and threats of violence abound and quite simply humanity is suffering. Our institutions of higher learning have become laboratories for politicalization where civility has little room for discussion of conflicting views. 

The Texas Tribune reports “the latest war between Israel and Hamas, newly reignited two months ago, has tested the limits of colleges’ commitment to free speech on campuses across the country. Faced with student protests, heated discussions, and pro-Palestine and pro-Israel advocates demanding universities take a stand, school leaders are wrestling with striking the right balance between their roles as moderators and facilitators of intellectual debate on campus.” Higher education and learning is being held hostage to political accommodation.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), one of the country’s leading free speech advocacy organizations focused specifically on college campuses, recently advised colleges and universities in US News “to take neutral stance on issues such as the war between Israel and Hamas, and to explain to students, faculty and the wider campus community that it has an obligation to protect free speech and students safety — but that they won’t be commenting on hot-button political issues in order to avoid chilling students and faculty … to be clear, the issue of free speech and protesting for a cause — even on difficult, complex and contentious issues like Israel, Palestinians and Gaza — is separate from threats and attacks on students, professors or anyone in the wider campus community, like those being waged against Jewish students on some campuses.”

As we look out over the horizon, we are confronted with deadly obstacles that underlie what is unmistakably global change that seriously questions the validity and stability of Western democracies. There can simply be no acceptance of autocratic regimes that are not founded or steeped in freedom, liberty, and the rule of law. There is no room for leadership that denigrates the importance and goodwill of the people. At stake is the value of humanity, as difficult as it is to harness, for the betterment of the populace.

Human compassion is the lighthouse beacon that will guide us into the harbor that will protect us from a relentless sea. No one has the answers to those difficulties that are defining the current generation, but without the sturdy infrastructure that bolsters our democratic system we run the risk of floundering at the expense of our children and future generations. The division that currently envelops our nation, politically and philosophically, threatens the strength of our resolve. Free speech must accompany peaceful co-existence. You can have both, and it is possible that both sides can be at fault for preventing exploration of a solution. What is totally unacceptable is to allow collateral damage among civilians to be written off as a price for peace and accepting threats and violence under the guise of free speech.