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Beyond the sandbox: Free speech on campus

My college adviser, Dr. Smith, who also turned out to be my favorite professor, was a man both respected and feared by his students.

As each week of his political science class progressed, he would deliver lectures based on the assigned reading. Then, on the last class meeting of the week, he would expect everyone to discuss the lectures and the reading. He assigned grades based on students' participation in the discussion and whether they demonstrated they had completed the required reading and absorbed it. But he didn't post the grades. He told students that as long as they did the reading and participated in the discussions, they had nothing to worry about.

This terrified many students, who couldn't stand not knowing how they were doing. When they asked him what he wanted them to know for the final exam, he would smile and inform them that they weren't in "the sandbox" anymore — his term for high school.

The points of view his students expressed were less important to him than their ability to back up those opinions with reasoned argument, bolstered by the material he presented.

Dr. Smith passed away several years ago. I often have wondered what he would make of college students now. I know today's students are every bit as bright and inquisitive as we were, but they also seem to be caught up in the polarization that is gripping American society at large.

The growth of social media and cable news channels has made it possible to hear, view and read only points of view that agree with one's own preconceptions. As a result of that echo chamber, the left-vs.-right divide seems wider than ever and getting wider.

This is manifested on college campuses by battles over the ideology of speakers invited to address students, especially when those speakers espouse conservative viewpoints. Too often, protests against those speakers turn violent.

Among other places, this has happened at the University of California at Berkeley, which has a storied history as the birthplace of the free-speech movement. Today, free speech seems too often to be limited to "speech I agree with." The violent protests of the late 1960s, which were aimed at promoting speech that was being suppressed, have become attempts to silence speech the protesters deem offensive.  

Colleges too often seem to cave in to organized student opposition, canceling appearances by right-wing speakers, sometimes under the pretense of maintaining order.

Certainly, violent protest of speech, no matter how incendiary that speech might be, is inappropriate, especially on college campuses, which are supposed to be places where ideas of all persuasions are freely exchanged and debated. If left-wing students are allowed to squelch right-wing speakers, or vice-versa, that exchange is impossible.

College traditionally has been a place where students go to have their preconceptions challenged — not a place of safety where they can expect to be shielded from opposing points of view.

I think I know what Dr. Smith would say to today's protesting students:

"You're not in the sandbox anymore."

— Reach Editorial Page Editor Gary Nelson at gnelson@mailtribune.com.