UNIVERSITY PRESIDENT AND GUEST CONTRIBUTOR
A few weeks ago, legendary First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams spoke to a packed Gore Recital Hall about the truly unique nature of American free speech. He cited many relevant examples from today’s headlines: the presidential campaign, political protests, journalism, social media and more. However divisive or outrageous some speech might be, Abrams said, America is “exceptional” for its willingness to pay a steep price — namely, the potential to be deeply offended — to maintain free speech.
University President Dennis Assanis.
At the University of Delaware, we embrace this same principle of free speech. A great university is an open marketplace of ideas, where students can — and should — encounter the often-conflicting opinions and perspectives of peers, professors and diverse thinkers from all ages and cultures. This is how we learn, grow and gain a clear understanding of the world and our place in it.
This is Free Speech Week, an annual celebration of this principle promoted by The Media Institute, a nonprofit research foundation. It follows last month’s Banned Books Week, which was organized by the American Libraries Association and included a public reading of several controversial books by our students. These efforts to highlight the importance of free expression are especially relevant to a university campus, which thrives on open dialogue. Indeed, if free speech cannot flourish here, it is endangered everywhere.
But what happens when our commitment to free speech conflicts with one of our core values? For example, we firmly believe that diversity — reflecting the full breadth of society — is essential to our identity. To uphold this value is to respect the dignity and worth of every single human being. And in a practical sense, our mission to prepare students to live and succeed in an increasingly diverse world requires our community to reflect that diversity. We are always working toward that goal, so we are recruiting and retaining a diverse student body and faculty, strengthening advisement and guidance programs to ensure the success of every student and promoting an inclusive culture on campus and in our community.
The right to free speech and our commitment to diversity present us with a difficult question: Should we allow speech that may malign or offend people, especially those we seek to welcome and include in our community?
To answer, let’s talk about tolerance, especially as it is defined in my academic field, engineering. To an engineer, tolerance refers to the extent variation is allowable. It can describe the degree to which an item — say, a piece of steel — can be put under stress without significantly losing its strength or its ability to do its job. A bridge built with high-tolerance steel can withstand a heavy load of vehicles and a stiff wind without collapsing, even if it might shake and sway a bit.
So in that sense, how tolerant is the University of Delaware? How much weight can we bear? How much stress can we endure?
My answer: A lot. We are a tolerant community, one that is strong enough to withstand speech we may find offensive. We don’t have to like it or endorse it, but, like that sturdy bridge, we won’t break.
The right to free speech protects every one of us, no matter how popular or unpopular our views might be. In the same way, our commitment to diversity means that we must respect the unique perspective each one of us brings to the public conversation. If we think we can sacrifice either diversity or free speech to preserve the other, we deserve neither.
The University of Delaware is a great institution, one that has been shaped over the past 273 years by the myriad voices of people who believe in our mission. We will continue to be great by upholding our principles and values, especially when it is most difficult to do so.
“But what happens when our commitment to free speech conflicts with one of our core values?”
What a curious question for a university president to pose. Isn’t free speech one of the university’s core values? The answer to President Assanis’s question should be obvious: if freedom of speech conflicts with your core values, then perhaps your core values are not constitutional.
Exactly. President Assanis would be wise to make it clear that there is a heirarchy to the university’s core values. Free speech comes before diversity and inclusion. President Khator of University of Houston made this point clear a few months ago in an email to UH students after a “racist” event by a Uh student. Guess what. The students didn’t revolt. Khator is a Persian woman so that may have something to do with the acceptance of her message but a strong leader can accomplish the same.