THE BLOG
04/07/2016 04:55 pm ET Updated Apr 08, 2017

Free Speech vs. Shielding Students: A False Choice

The U.S. Supreme Court once praised the unique qualities of higher education by describing our classrooms as "peculiarly the marketplace of ideas." In recent days at the University of Michigan, however, chalked anti-Islam messages in the center of our campus have given a different impression-- that we are in danger of becoming a marketplace of labels, epithets and petty attacks. Indeed, compelling evidence suggests we are already well down this path.

Participants in the debate over speech on campus have addressed the degrading of our discourse in two ways. They have either shrugged, declaring nothing can be done given the value we place on free expression. Or they have advocated for the suppression of speech to shield students from hurtful ideas. This is a false choice, and a frightening one.

A university community must be free to explore ideas that some people will find offensive, even painful.

At the same time, universities must welcome a diversity of voices. It is pointless -- perhaps hypocritical -- to extoll the virtues of the marketplace of ideas if some members of our community feel excluded from it. It is contradictory to celebrate the power of words but deny their capacity to wound and marginalize.

This real tension between core values deserves serious attention and thoughtful discussion. We are not getting there.

Instead, we too often default to a battle of slogans and accusations. The avoidance of honest discussion of certain topics, sometimes labeled "political correctness," has unquestionably inhibited speech on campuses. But the label itself is sometimes used to squelch discussion of legitimate concerns.

We have to do better. We will not make progress until members of our university communities abandon the comfort of their favored ideological silos and aspire toward a discourse that recognizes the virtues of the opposing viewpoint and critically assesses the limitations of their own. We must listen - really listen -- to one another with mutual respect.

Failure to do so has led to simplistic positions that dishonor the complexity of critical issues that require real thought. This shortcoming has plagued both sides of the debate.

Take freedom of expression. This is inarguably an essential precondition for serious intellectual inquiry. In the course of open debate, disagreement and even discord are inevitable.

Disrespect, hate, bigotry and targeted attacks, however, are not inevitable. Those are choices--bad ones. A university community must have the wisdom and courage to see them as such, condemn them and strive toward something greater.

This is not censorship. This is what a community of scholars does.

It challenges lazy thinking. It illuminates the difference between epithet and argument. It clarifies the distinctions between what we are permitted to say and what we should say, between simply venting, and truly contributing new knowledge.

This is the point of free expression--to learn how to think in deeper, more nuanced ways in search of understanding. Free expression is an indispensable means, but it is not the end. Ironically, treating it as an end robs it of its utility and its force.

Calls to suppress troublesome speech on campus have their own failings. They are unworkable, posing massive definitional problems, resisting even-handed enforcement and violating First Amendment guarantees. We have experience with this at Michigan, where a speech code adopted in the 1980s was found unconstitutional by a federal court. Just last year, we stumbled again when a well-intentioned administrative unit canceled the showing of the film "American Sniper" in response to complaints from some who found it offensive.

Even if such speech limitations were practical and lawful, they would be deeply problematic. We want the members of our university community to err on the side of saying what they think.

I am deeply distressed every time a hateful attack occurs on our campus. As a leader and educator I wish we could keep it from happening in our backyard. We can't, but our community can change the narrative, and it is:

A year ago we began work on a comprehensive plan to enhance diversity, equity and inclusion on our campus. Our law school students and faculty collaborate on "pop up" presentations and discussions to understand all sides of issues even as they are emerging. Our Program on Intergroup Relations offers courses on social conflict and teaches students skills for functioning in a diverse environment. And when appropriate, I, and other university leaders, don't hesitate to use our voices to condemn speech that contributes nothing to the debate but suffering and exclusion.

Our ability to move beyond a superficial exchange of slings and slurs - to recognize the false choice of free speech versus inclusivity -- depends upon our willingness to challenge the degraded discourse prevalent today in national politics and in our campus communities. We must work harder and think harder. Together.