What Should Free Speech Mean in College?

Jill Patton:

Imagine a student posting satirical flyers around his dorm that mock undocumented students who fear deportation. Or flyers that say, “Racism lives here.” Or posters advertising a controversial speaker’s visit—which another resident rips down.

Now picture a classroom discussion about police shootings of African Americans. Some students attribute the deaths to cops’ racist attitudes. Another student counters that claim, saying a more likely explanation is that violent crime rates are higher among blacks. “Now, that was particularly uncivil!” the professor replies. Another student stands, as if to storm out in disgust at his classmate’s rebuttal. The professor slams his hand on the table, crying, “Sit down!” as he tries to regain control of the room.

Out in White Plaza—a Stanford free speech zone—a student group staffs a table in support of a Supreme Court nominee. Detractors try to steal the group’s signs, prompting the supporters to film the sign stealers and the taunting that ensues on both sides.

There are no easy answers to how a university should address conflicts in which students feel attacked or silenced—sometimes on both sides simultaneously. As Debra Satz, a philosopher and the dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, says, “A central aim of the university—to generate knowledge—depends on the free exchange of ideas.” But, says Satz, who expands on her view in an essay below, “The classroom is not a street corner: No classroom can be a place of learning without abiding by norms of civility and mutual respect.”