In 1932, the University of Chicago faced a watershed moment in its university policy: what to do about a Communist.
When a UChicago student organization invited William Z. Foster, the Communist Party’s presidential candidate, to lecture on the prestigious campus, the school faced immense backlash. Between concerned citizens and angry politicians, the public condemned Foster’s visit, dismissing his views as “treasonous hate rhetoric.” Even then-governor of Illinois, Louis Lincoln Emmerson, expressed his disapproval of the university for permitting the lecture to continue.
In response to the criticism, UChicago President Robert M. Hutchins released a public statement that defined a precedent for the school: “Our students should have the freedom to discuss any problem that presents itself … the cure for ideas we oppose lies through open discussion rather than through inhibition.”
From their genesis, colleges and universities were designed to serve as hubs of knowledge, spaces to expand one’s perspective and mindset. Since then, colleges have evolved in a multitude of ways — there are now thousands of diverse, unique schools with their own distinct mission statements and practices. But, still, at their core, they’ve remained the same: centers for contemplation, discourse and debate. A key component of this objective is allowing students to construct their beliefs in the face of conflict and dispute.
However, in recent years, as college students have grown more cognizant of social inequity, the issue of censorship has warped into a bitter conflict on university campuses. In particular, a number of high-profile, controversial events on campuses — typically featuring conservative and alt-right speakers — has fueled this debate. Tensions reached a peak when violence broke out among UC Berkeley protesters denouncing Milo Yiannopoulos, a Republican extremist speaker. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was pressured into dropping out from giving a commencement address at Rutgers University due to her involvement in the Iraq War.
Even Cornell faced an issue revolving around censorship this past year. Last semester, the Cornell Political Union rescinded an invitation to Jannique Stewart, a conservative pro-life speaker, from discussing abortion due to her anti-LGBT rhetoric. The decision was met with criticism, denouncing CPU for uninviting Stewart and thus restricting an open exchange of views.
While protesters should be allowed to express dissent against inflammatory speakers, they should not be allowed to obstruct their voices. By allowing students to censor unpalatable opinions on campuses, universities are complicit in fostering narrow-minded environments of education. As a result, college students remain shielded from the opinions and people that, for better or for worse, play a role in shaping and influencing the real world. If universities continue to follow these practices, they commit a disservice to their students. Even former President Barack Obama echoes this sentiment, expressing concerns that college students are “coddled and protected from different points of view.”
In fact, it is the duty of universities to practice the opposite of censorship — they should actively promote the principles set forth in the First Amendment. Colleges should aim to cultivate learning environments where all perspectives from across the political spectrum are expressed. Therefore, they should allow speakers hailing from every political background to share their viewpoints; at the same time, they must allocate space for protesters to voice their dissenting opinions.
Jonathan Butcher, a policy analyst for The Heritage Foundation, perfectly sums it up: “Ideas are powerful, and choosing to fear an idea instead of learning to understand it or overcome it with a better one is a poor life strategy. Things we disagree with won’t go away if we pretend they don’t exist.”
UChicago sets a strong example for other colleges to follow. Even when up against student protests and public disapproval, the university adhered to its commitment to discourse and growth. By allowing Foster to speak, UChicago established that free speech would always be valued on their campus.
Granted, Cornell has also made strides in policy that encourages free speech. Just last semester, the University opted to scrap its event security fee. This move — involving a heated controversy over the CUPD’s ultimatum against CPU’s Michael Johns, Sr. (whose son is a columnist for The Sun) talk — pushes the campus in a more open, inclusive direction. In doing so, Cornell has more closely aligned itself with its founding principle of “any person … any study.”
Despite Cornell’s controversy over CPU and Jannique Stewart, I hope to see our campus continue to move down this path of open discourse. Cornell has always prided itself as an institution with a liberal arts education, touting a comprehensive learning experience to build more well-rounded students. Debate and conflict are necessary elements to this formula; they push students into uncomfortable situations, stretch their understanding of issues and assess their ability to defend or improve their stances.
Niko Nguyen is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Unfiltered runs every other Wednesday this semester.