My fellow students, faculty and alumni,
In the recent weeks I’ve written frequently about the importance of viewpoint diversity, freedom of speech and expression as well as the dangers of intellectual fragility. As I’ve been writing, I’ve also been sending letters to several administrators about the same topics, urging them to adopt a resolution similar to the one The University of Chicago penned in 2012 (https://freeexpression.uchicago.edu/page/statement-principles-free-expression). In this article, I’d like to share with you a model resolution I’ve developed in conjunction with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (http://www.thefire.org). Its aim is to reaffirm our institution’s commitment to the aim of the academic setting, furthering the process of truth.
Because West Chester University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the West Chester community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn. Insofar as limitations of that freedom are necessary to the functioning of West Chester University, the university fully respects and supports the freedom of all members of the West Chester community “to discuss any problem that presents itself.”
Of course, the ideas of different members of the West Chester University community will often and quite naturally conflict; but it is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable or offensive; nor is it the university’s role to promote any form of intellectual uniformity or political orthodoxy. This is directly antithetical to the telos of the university setting and our institution.
Although West Chester University greatly values civility, and although all members of the university community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas; however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.
The freedom to debate and discuss the merits of competing ideas does not, of course, mean that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish. West Chester University may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of West Chester University. In addition, West Chester University may reasonably regulate the time, place and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the university. But these are narrow exceptions to the general principle of freedom of expression, and it is vitally important that these exceptions never be used in a manner that is inconsistent with the university’s commitment to a completely free and open discussion of ideas.
In a word, West Chester University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the university community to be offensive, unwise, immoral or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the university community, not for West Chester University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose. Indeed, fostering the ability of members of the university community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of West Chester University’s educational mission.
As a consequence to West Chester University’s commitment to protect and promote free expression, members of the university community must also act in conformity with the principle of free expression. Although members of the university community are free to criticize and contest the views expressed on campus, and to criticize and contest speakers who are invited to express their views on campus, they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe. To this end, West Chester University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.
Ryan Wasser is a graduate student pursuing a WTC English MA. RW851045@wcupa.edu