Tense debates have arisen on college campuses in the wake of the October 7 Hamas terrorist attacks on Israeli citizens. Some students on campuses like Harvard’s have gotten locked into fierce, personal encounters over the legitimacy and reason for the massacre of unsuspecting Israeli families.
Cornell and New York’s Cooper Union saw outright threats of violence targeting students. At other schools, conferences in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks have prompted donors to pull back money to their schools and one professor to resign the chairmanship of his department.
These flashpoints have fueled the latest battles over free speech on college campuses. The First Amendment greatly protects offensive speech and expression — perhaps more than some would prefer. But it has limits, particularly concerning targeted threats of violence, intimidation and incitement. Indeed, death threats like those at Cornell or protesters cornering students at the Cooper Union constitute obvious and unacceptable exceptions.
Still, discerning what meets the high bar of those exceptions is not always easy, and it illustrates some of the friction in free societies over freedom of speech, inclusion and security. As the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) observes in a post on X, “Times like this may seem to present the most righteous justifications for bending the rules in one direction or the other, to either permit the censorship of protected speech or to allow unprotected speech or violence to go unpunished.”
Neither of those directions is good for preserving a free society. Americans need better ways of navigating these tensions and other differences. That starts with a broad commitment to pluralism and its emphasis on tolerance for people and groups with differing views, backgrounds and beliefs. Pluralism allows people with different perspectives to share their views and practice their beliefs — within the bounds of the rule of law — without reprisal.
Committing to pluralism is particularly important for college campuses.
Almost 60 percent of the students who responded to a 2023 FIRE national survey reported feeling at least some pressure to not raise controversial topics in class. More than half said they wouldn’t feel entirely comfortable raising those topics during discussions in campus common spaces. And about 70 percent expressed discomfort in publicly disagreeing with their professors on controversial topics.
Some responsibility rests with students. They should take it upon themselves to promote better dialogue and understanding. Organizations like BridgeUSA provide spaces and training for students to do that on campuses nationwide.
Yet, it isn’t all up to students. University leaders must create opportunities for students to practice civil engagement. The Bipartisan Policy Center’s Campus Free Expression: A New Roadmap suggests that schools provide coaching and instruction for students during their first orientation sessions.
University leaders also must accept that controversy is inevitable in a pluralistic, multiethnic democracy. Practicing how to handle conflicts before they occur can help them constructively manage interactions between groups with opposing views. In service to this effort, university leaders are responsible for ensuring students are exposed to different points of view and modeling how to respectfully engage or disagree with them.
We should take these issues seriously because, as Frederick Douglass said, freedom of speech is the “dread of tyrants.” His “Plea for Freedom of Speech in Boston” wonderfully summarizes how and why freedom of expression is a cornerstone of liberal democratic societies.
Douglass extolled the virtues of free speech after an angry mob shut down — some, today, may say canceled — a previously planned gathering. He called the right to speak one’s mind “the great moral renovator of society and government” and argued that “liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist.”
To Douglass, freedom of expression is essential for a democratic society. It allows for the flow of ideas and scrutiny that makes for a vibrant press, an informed citizenry, a limited and accountable government, a healthy academic environment dedicated to the pursuit of truth, and a culture that allows for compelling (and, yes, provocative) artistic expression.
His words also remind us that free expression is the tool of the powerless and oppressed by providing the framework to question and innovate the status quo. Without that ability and its broad application to all society, tyranny is more likely to take root.
As a society, we are better off maximizing the space for acceptable expression, especially on our college campuses. Students who develop respect for and tolerance of other points of view are likely to carry that approach with them throughout their lives.