Pittsburgh - By Allison Schubert - Duquesne University held a first-of-its-kind First Amendment Conference this week, with the goal of showing that “all Americans—regardless of ideology or politics—can find common ground in a national celebration of the First Amendment.”
One session specifically focused on the free speech of college students on campuses across the nation.
The session was moderated by Jeffrey Rosen, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center, and included panelists Teresa Sullivan, David A. Thomas and Robert Zimmer.
Sullivan is a professor and president emerita of the only public institution represented on the panel, the University of Virginia.
“Virginia is a purple state,” Sullivan said during the session. “As a public institution, we are required to admit at least 70% of every class from the state of Virginia, so we reflect that purpleness.”
That ‘purpleness’ is mirrored in a recent study done at the university, showing that one-third of the incoming class in 2018 were Republicans, one-third were Democrats and one-third were Independents.
Sullivan said the main problem she saw with freedom of speech on a campus as equally divided as the University of Virginia is that “students with conflicting points of view will often remain silent…, and will only strike a conversation with those that identify with their beliefs.”
Thomas is the current president of Morehouse College, a predominantly African-American private college and one of three all-male colleges in the United States.
The problem at Morehouse, in Thomas’s eyes, is a lack of diversity.
“A student came to my office from our campus’s Republican organizations wanting to bring a speaker in for his club,” Thomas said. “When I asked how many students were in the organization, he responded that there were only three dedicated members.”
Thomas also said the lack of diversity in political views on campus results in an echo chamber-like scenario, in which students consistently only hear that their view of the issues is correct.
Zimmer is the current president of the University of Chicago, a more traditional private institution.
He was one of the co-founders of the Chicago Principles, which, according to Zimmer, are a “set of statements protecting free expression on campus and a bedrock principle of the university.”
“Saying you stand with the First Amendment is not sufficient,” Zimmer said. “People tend to be all for free speech if it agrees with them, but against the free speech of those with moral, political or religious views that conflict with their own.”
Sullivan suggested that promoting debate teams can be a good start to having students talk about conflicting points of view. She also said some educators believe they should present ideas to their students in a way they believe to be the truth, instead of presenting all sides of an idea and allowing students to interpret the information for themselves.
“Universities would not exist without conflicting views,” Sullivan said in her closing statement.
Thomas said the existing problems with free speech on campuses mirrors the “current polarization of the country.”
“The conflict today is caused by a current group of elites who were not exposed to differing beliefs as they grew up,” Thomas said. “They need to hear that conflicting views and free expression are what lead to great leaders.”
Zimmer said exercising free speech starts in the classroom, specifically with those in charge.
“Educators have to think about whether they want to convey truth or teach their students how to think,” Zimmer said. “Conveying their truth leads to limited thinking, but if they teach their students how to be thinkers and how to analyze those thoughts, that is when you empower the students as individuals and encourage them to share their beliefs.”
*Photos courtesy Duquesne University
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