October 26, 2017

Zimmer Debates Free Speech on College Campuses

University president Robert Zimmer spoke at a Senate hearing yesterday, titled “Exploring Free Speech on College Campuses.”

The hearing was held by the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, and it featured testimonies from the Southern Poverty Law Center president and university professors.

The event opened with a statement from committee chairman Senator Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee, regarding tensions on college campuses where event speakers had been interrupted by protesters. He expressed disapproval at the idea that controversial speakers might not be allowed to visit campuses or complete their talks due to opposition from students.

Alexander stated in his opening remarks that Zimmer and other university leaders had “taken action to reaffirm their commitment to free speech.”

“Universities should be the place where people of different views may speak, audiences can listen, and many contrasting viewpoints are encouraged,” Alexander said. “There should be some sensible ways to allow that while still protecting freedom of speech guaranteed by the first amendment.”

In his testimony, Zimmer stated that free speech on college campuses is at a crucial tipping point and has implications nationwide.

He argued that critical thinking skills such as synthesizing different perspectives or understanding history and context—skills which rely on freedom of expression—are at the cornerstone of a good education.

“If the education that we provide does not give students the opportunity to acquire these skills and abilities, they will be underprepared to make informed decisions in the complex and uncertain world they will confront upon entering the workplace,” Zimmer said. “Intrinsic to students attaining these skills is an environment of ongoing intellectual challenge of which free expression and open discourse is an essential part.”

Zimmer discussed at length the “Chicago Principles,” which are included in the University's statement on free expression that was formalized by Law School professor Geoffrey Stone in 2014.

One of those three principles directly addresses disruptive protests.

“Disruptive protests, or other means of limiting the rights of others to engage in free expression, listening, and open discourse is not acceptable and is a violation of the University's commitment to free expression,” Zimmer said.

Zimmer concluded his five-minute address by asserting, with a sense of urgency, that university leadership should take charge on this issue.

“[I]t will [be] up to the faculty, university leaders, and trustees, who together help to define institutional culture over time, to forcefully embrace freedom of expression.” Zimmer said. “For the sake of our students...we must embrace freedom of expression and resist the suppression that we are seeing on college and university campuses.”