Colleges must protect free speech, but not when students feel unsafe

Colleges must protect free speech, but not when students feel unsafe

Originally posted 09/26/17 on The Hill.
By Art Coleman.

The new academic year is now well upon us with the return of hundreds of thousands of students to college this fall. And it’s a time unlike any in recent memory. The nation’s political divide is stark and conspicuous on campuses across the country where protests centering on issues of race, religion and free speech are rampant.

Moreover, with our 24/7 news cycle and incessant social media, student debates are often no longer just for campus discussion. They can become headlines for our nation. Most recently, “Free Speech Week” at the University of California in Berkeley was launched into the news, only later to be cancelled by the student group organizing it.

In today’s world, whether on the topic of the Berkeley dispute or student protests about racist incidents, graduation speakers, immigration policy and so much more, we face a steady, rapid-fire torrent of claims and opinions, from enlightening and informed to ignorant and vicious. One tweet or post, often far removed from reality on the ground, can transform a smoldering campus ember into a raging national fire.

My hope is that all of us — policymakers, politicians, higher education leaders, and students — exercise a bit of calm reflection when engaging in the debate commanding the day’s news. Part of that reflection should include recognition of some of the defining principles surrounding America’s higher education system that, when followed, can provide great value for us all.

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