UAA must commit to free speech

We like to think of a university as a marketplace of ideas. Students engage instructors, as well as each other, in facilitating a massive exchange of information that challenges bias and encourages critical thinking. This environment is competitive in the sense that multiple ideas may seek to address the same issue, but only the strongest ideas survive the rigorous debate along the way. Most people would endorse this process. However, they often fail to be consistent on that, especially when those ideas are controversial. Censoring speech on campus is all too tempting because it alleviates the burden of having to challenge it.

UAA needs to commit to free speech. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have a great head start in that effort. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a non-profit watchdog for civil rights in academia, rates UAA with a speech code rating of red. That is the lowest rating that FIRE uses. UAA’s Acceptable Use Policy is cited as the most egregious suppression of free speech. It prohibits “content related to partisan political activities,” among other categories, when using any UAA information resource, as stated on the UAA website.

UAA has experienced instances where free speech was tested. A former professor, Richard Steiner, claimed that his removal from a $10,000 research grant in 2009 was retaliation for criticizing the oil industry, which invests in UAA. A painting of a beheaded Donald Trump by professor Thomas Chung in 2017 elicited strong reactions. After several students at Chugiak High School posted a picture with the Confederate flag, the director of Student Conduct and Ethical Development speculated that a similar occurrence at UAA would have to weigh the freedom of the individual to express themselves to how it would impact the members of our community.” Students’ artwork on display in the Student Union Hugh McPeck Gallery has been subjected to coverings on occasion, supposedly to protect the innocent passersby from the terrifying female nipple.

In the face of controversial expression, why should UAA insist on the right to free expression? It isn’t just that students have a constitutional right to be themselves in public spaces. It’s that bad ideas can be diminished through exposure, but they will persist and grow stronger when censored. Peddlers of bad ideas love to feel persecuted. They want to be the victim so that they can withdraw sympathy from actually marginalized people. When the peddler is censored, it starts to look like the establishment is insecure about what values it defends. For example, if the established consensus on campus is that women can excel at historically male-dominated fields like engineering, then it need not fear the misogynist who claims otherwise. Evidence and ethics is on the side of the establishment. The misogynist is just wrong, and allowing their ideas to be subjected to public debate or ridicule exposes just how wrong it is.

Having confidence in your values applies to controversial speakers as well. Some speakers are controversial but substantive, like philosopher Sam Harris and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Some are just trolls, like polemicist Milo Yiannopoulos and that doomsday preacher in the Cuddy Quad every semester. Others are somewhere in between, like political commentators Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson. All of these people are covered by free speech. They can only damage your values if your values are wrong or your confidence in them is insufficient. Some fear that allowing controversial speakers a pedestal to speak on automatically legitimizes them. Yet, they seem to grow in popularity each time they’re censored, disinvited or their counter-protestors set campus ablaze in a riot. Peaceful boycotts are more effective. Nothing sedates a troll quicker than an empty audience. Mature counter-argument can be effective in breaking down a speaker’s idea as well. The higher the pedestal, the harder the fall.

Difficult subjects like free speech on campus should not be left to circumstantial evaluation. Every human evaluator will be prone to bias and that can affect what expression is deemed permissible and what isn’t. Having a legalistic foundation is important for consistency. That foundation should be the Chicago Statement, which is a set of principles based off of the 2015 Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago. The Chicago Statement has been lauded as a gold standard for free speech, and has been adopted by 60 universities around the country. Its language is well-balanced by affirming equal rights between a controversial speaker and counter-protestors. After all, free speech goes both ways. The statement is also versatile enough to be applicable in a university as unique as UAA.

USUAA Student Government should get the ball rolling on this. They should introduce and pass a UAA version of the Chicago Statement based on the sample draft provided by FIRE. USUAA’s endorsement should be followed by a similar motion in the UAA Faculty Senate. This combined endorsement places exigent pressure on the administration to make the Chicago Statement an official policy of the university.

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Of course, all of this should be viewed as the impetus for free speech at UAA, not the end-all. Serious reform needs to be accomplished in order to elevate our FIRE rating from red to green. But the statement provides the bedrock for USUAA to advocate change. This process needs to be started as soon as the new student government convenes in Fall 2019. Students who value and benefit from free speech in academia will expect nothing less.