07/26/2013 12:30 pm ET Updated Sep 25, 2013

Freedom of Speech on Campuses

One feature of a pluralistic, multicultural democracy like ours is that no matter what position someone takes on social or political issues, some faction or the other is offended. A university campus certainly is a microcosm of the larger society, but first and foremost, it is a training ground for responsible citizenship. Campus leaders should be careful not to impose or accept political correctness to the extent of curtailing free speech, but encourage thoughtful debate. When confronted with balancing free speech against offending certain societal factions, some decisions are easier than others. Two recent news items illustrate the complexities.

Rolling Stone magazine recently published a cover image of alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev that many interpreted as glorifying him, portraying him as a hero or a martyr. The magazine publishers were rightly criticized for their insensitivity toward the victims of the bombing and their families. There were calls to remove the magazine from bookstore stacks. Should a campus bookstore refuse to sell that issue of the magazine? I think the answer is rather easy: no. The fact that the magazine cover is in bad taste, insensitive and likely to upset or offend many is not reason enough to exercise censorship. People can choose not to purchase the issue, not to subscribe to the magazine or even persuade others to boycott the magazine. The Bill of Rights in the Constitution is unprecedented in its protection of free speech, even hateful speech. It is those protections that form the enduring foundation of U.S. democracy.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported recently on the case of a music graduate student at Northwestern University who refused to perform a music piece based on Walt Whitman's poetry because of Whitman's bigoted view of African-Americans, and received a failing grade as a result. In fact, that failing grade has kept him from completing his degree. Should the student have been allowed to substitute a different piece? The professor and the university administration have taken the point of view that setting the curriculum and expectations for passing the course are ultimately the prerogative of the faculty. One could easily get bogged down on technical or procedural questions: was this requirement about Whitman's work mentioned on the course syllabus, and did the student knowingly enroll in the course? I think such thinking misses the core educational issue: slavery and racism are very much a history of the U.S., and the intellectuals and cultural elite of the 19th and early 20th century embody that legacy. Learning occurs by studying history, analyzing the contradictions of intellectuals who espoused the virtues of true democracy while holding racist views, and not by denying history. Where would we stop? Exempt Jewish students from reading Nazi-era philosophical writings in a philosophy course? Yes, there are very painful episodes in our collective world history, but we must learn from them, not boycott their study. Our heroes and leaders are not monolithic candidates for sainthood, excelling in one sphere while displaying human frailty in other spheres. We must not lionize them, but neither should we ignore their contributions to culture and society. Successful citizenship in a pluralistic, multicultural democracy requires a holistic education, one in which the full range of human thought and character are studied and analyzed.

We need our future citizens to be not classifiable according to the state in which they live (Red or Blue) or their choice of cable news channel (Fox or MSNBC). We need them to be critical thinkers, capable of reaching nuanced conclusions based on available evidence and societal good. At UMass Amherst this is the goal of our general education curriculum.