Saturday, April 20, 2024

Opinion: Upholding the principle — and practice — of free speech at UD

OpinionOp-EdOpinion: Upholding the principle — and practice — of free speech at UD
University President Dennis Assanis

Dr. Dennis Assanis, President, University of Delaware

Free speech is a bedrock principle of democracy, essential to the ongoing public conversation that drives our nation’s system of self-governance. It gives us all the opportunity to express our ideas, question our leaders and advocate for the changes we would like to see in the world.

Here at the University of Delaware, each has the responsibility to foster an atmosphere that promotes the free exchange of ideas and opinions. Everyone has the right to benefit from this atmosphere. And this requires us to be willing and able to grapple with facts and ideas with which we disagree, that challenge our worldview or that make us uncomfortable, or even at times angry.

The start of a new academic year is an opportune time to reaffirm our commitment to free speech, and October gives us two weeks that highlight and celebrate this important topic. Banned Books Week is Oct. 1-7, when we can promote the importance of reading and stand up to attempts at censorship. And Oct. 16-22 is Free Speech Week to raise awareness of the critical value of free speech and a free press in our democracy.

So, if the principle of free speech is so important, why do we need high-profile annual events to remind and encourage us? Frankly, it is because the practice of free speech, especially when it conflicts with or challenges our other core values, can be extraordinarily difficult.

Throughout our University’s history, multiple scenarios that present such challenge — from controversial speakers to uninvited community groups staging demonstrations with intent to offend UD students passing by on the public sidewalks adjacent to our campus — have tested UD’s commitment to free speech in the past, and will certainly surface again in the future.

Understandably, the urge to suppress offensive speech can be strong. After all, we are deeply committed to diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice, and we work every day to promote and live out those values on our campus and in the community.

But censorship not only shuts down the speaker; it also robs the listener of the opportunity to understand the speaker’s perspective, refute their ideas with a fact-based counterargument and possibly even change the speaker’s mind. Certainly, some ideas are utterly loathsome, but we cannot hope to combat them if we silence the speaker and pretend the ideas don’t exist.

To be clear, there are limits. Speech that infringes on the rights of others, interrupts the functioning of the University or its programs, incites violence or property damage or that crosses into criminal threats or discriminatory harassment is unacceptable, and any instances of this on our campus are dealt with accordingly.

Importantly, tolerance of offensive speech is not the same as acquiescence. While UD is a tolerant community — meaning we can accommodate a wide range of perspectives, and we can bend without breaking — we can also exercise our own free speech rights to oppose the ideas and words that we find abhorrent. We can, and we will, continue to stand up for our own values.

We can also commit to engaging in civil and respectful dialogue whenever we speak. To this end, the SNF Ithaca Initiative at UD is focused on developing and promoting the practice of civil discourse on our campus and throughout our society. Given the critical importance of free speech to our democracy and the broad range of complex issues facing our nation as we approach the 2024 presidential election, we need to keep talking to each other, even — especially — when we inevitably disagree.

The many challenges that accompany free speech are indeed complex. Yet UD’s commitment to this principle — so fundamental to our pursuit of truth and a better world for all — will never waver.

University President Dennis Assanis wrote the above op-ed. His opinions are his own and do not represent the majority opinion of The Review staff.

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