The importance of free speech on college campuses

Running Penn’s Committee on Open Expression has given Sigal Ben-Porath an up-close look at free speech on campus—and even inspired her to write a book on the topic.

Ben-Porath’s research focuses on citizenship education, normative aspects of educational and social policy, and the social and educational effects of war.

Sigal Ben-Porath, a professor at the Graduate School of Education, has been chair of Penn’s Committee on Open Expression since the 2015-16 academic year, a position that has given her an up-close and personal view of the complications and challenges surrounding free speech, especially in the current, hyper-partisan environment.

Consisting of faculty, staff, and students, the Committee follows Penn’s longstanding Guidelines on Open Expression, which were developed in the 1960s and updated a number of times in subsequent years. Members of the Committee are tasked with upholding the Guidelines and mediating related concerns that are brought before them.

Since the 2015-16 academic year, Sigal Ben-Porath has been chair of Penn’s Committee on Open Expression.  

Devotion to an open-minded atmosphere on college campuses has been embraced, by and large, by students and faculty for generations, says Ben-Porath, who both believe freedom of expression is imperative for constructive learning and research. Nonetheless, she says students with diverging ideological leanings differ on how free freedom of speech actually is. Certain students believe the right is nearly absolute; others seek to limit debate or the expression of views on topics they believe fall outside the bounds of reasonable discussion.

Ben-Porath’s work on the Open Expression committee moved her to write the book “Free Speech on Campus.” Published last year by the University of Pennsylvania Press, the manuscript examines the current state of the arguments about free speech on college campuses, using real-world examples to explore the contexts in which conflicts and tensions erupt.

In response to her book, Ben-Porath has been invited to give talks about free speech at a variety of higher education institutions, including community colleges, Ivy League universities, and public institutions, some of whom have set up committees to draft or update guidelines on open expression.

“Free Speech on Campus” was published last year by the University of Pennsylvania Press.  

“I think a lot of places are just now waking up to the concern that even if you’re a small place, even if you don’t necessarily see yourself as that visible or your students as necessarily organized in this way, it’s still your problem as well,” she says. “Even if you’re not interested in free speech, free speech is interested in you.”

Administrative awakenings in relation to free speech on college campuses are the result of student activism, and also the fact that universities are a primary target in the current culture wars, Ben-Porath says. University leaders have trepidations about how the higher education sector is perceived. She says where a person stands on the issue of free speech on college campuses is now a marker for a general ideological stance that partisans can use to signal their overall position, similar to how people used to speak about marriage equality.

The most vocal critics accuse universities of being too elitist, lacking ideological diversity, and prioritizing progressive and liberal views.

Commentators and critics point to instances in which conservative speakers have been heckled or prevented from speaking as proof that students at so-called “liberal” universities are too fragile for ideological debate, fail to understand democratic commitments, and are attempting to stifle free speech.

Surveys have shown a more limited support for free speech or First Amendment protections on college campuses, but Ben-Porath says students attempting to limit speech support free speech, but object to free speech being used to harm, denigrate, or devalue another human being.

“This is not being a snowflake, this is being an activist,” she says. “What they are expressing is not oversensitivity that they can’t handle the truth. They are expressing a commitment to the values that we are teaching them and we are not always practicing, like equal dignity to all persons. That doesn’t show fragility, in my view. It actually shows a commitment to democratic values, and we need to listen to that.”

Even if you’re not interested in free speech, free speech is interested in you. Sigal Ben-Porath, a professor in the Graduate School of Education

Ben-Porath does not support speech codes or the shutting down of speakers—even those who speak hate. Universities as an institution should not invite such speakers, but if a student or a student group is interested in inviting the person to campus, she does not think the school should intervene.

Aside from individuals calling for violence, Ben-Porath says there are very few people who should be prevented from speaking.

“From where I stand, it’s going to be a pretty small marginal group of people, and I won’t expand it, even when there are people who I see and a lot of people see as quite hateful,” she says. “I don’t necessarily want to prevent them from coming to campus because I think that they are, sadly, a part of our current political debate. I regret that, but I would like to support my students in engaging with that.”

Student activists have a large toolkit for responding to speakers they disagree with if they look historically and in present practice, Ben-Porath says. And these tools are much more effective than shutting speakers down. She says students can use humor, as has been done when responding to the anti-gay preachers on Locust Walk. To protest the preachers’ hateful signs, students created their own humorous signs and collected donations for the Attic, an LGBT youth center, while the preachers spoke.

“The Black Graduate and Professional Student Assembly here on campus staged an excellent protest earlier this fall in response to a speaker speaking against the Black Lives Matter movement,” Ben-Porath says. “Excellent in the sense that it was nonviolent, but a very effective protest.” The students dressed in similar fashion, brought signs expressing their opposition, asked the speaker hard questions, and protested outside the venue.

“They engaged with the content and rejected it effectively,” she says. “They engaged with the actual invitation by their presence, by their visible appearance with their clothes and their signs. I thought that was great because they were able to express their opposition, and to express their valid perspective in opposition to her views way more effectively than if they shouted her down.”

Photo: Ben-Porath’s research focuses on citizenship education, normative aspects of educational and social policy, and the social and educational effects of war.