Faculty boards across the country, including the University of Connecticut’s, have expressed concern about the obstruction of the freedom of speech and expression on college campuses, citing recent events where freedom of speech has been suppressed by both university and non-university actors. In response to some of these issues, former UConn President Susan Herbst formed the Task Force on Free Speech and Civility in 2017. The Task Force published a statement reaffirming free speech that was unanimously approved by the University Senate. However, as past confrontations over free speech at UConn such as Luncian Wintrich’s infamous clash with students fade from memory, it is important for the UConn community to revisit its commitment to free speech in a proactive way. Moreover, the nation as a whole (the Jan. 6 capitol riot and increasing polarization) is not providing a model for civil discourse that students can emulate. It is up to the UConn community to commit to protecting free speech.
Even though the UConn campus might seem isolated from the rest of the world, it is not isolated from political developments and other current events that prompt discourse and strong emotions. UConn students react and talk about current events every day. However, there is a deficit in frameworks that students can emulate to have a civil discourse about different points of view in student organizations and other spaces on and off campus. This has only been exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced students to meet virtually and remain isolated from each other. In fact, a large number of students have never met each other in-person. Their virtual interactions (un)naturally lack body language and other social cues that facilitate human dialogue. Thus, what may have once been a disagreement in an in-person encounter might now feel like an insult.
The deficit in frameworks for civil discourse can be partly corrected by adopting restorative models and practices such as Harlan Cohen’s win-or-learn framework and his idea of the “universal rejection truth,” outlined in his new book ‘Win or Learn.’ According to Cohen, there is no losing in civil discourse or in interactions with others—one can only learn from someone else’s point of view or win the argument. This is possible because of the “universal rejection truth,” which Cohen describes as a mindset that allows people to accept rejection. This liberating notion that others will not always accept one’s point of view or ideas can help foster a culture of free speech. Even though these frameworks can increase tolerance for free speech, a more robust commitment is needed to protect free speech.
The UConn community can protect free speech at the institutional level by adopting the Chicago Statement, which has now been adopted by 81 major institutions of higher education across the country. The UConn community can also protect free speech by disseminating the Chicago Statement among its hundreds of student organizations. Finally, the UConn community can protect free speech at the individual level by encouraging all members to create a free and open environment in all university spaces.
Committing to protect free speech raises concerns about its scope. Some might fear it will lead to the toleration of hate speech, violent speech or speech that infringes upon human rights. Some of these questions have been litigated and debated for centuries, but at the end of the day it is every UConn member’s moral responsibility to use their free speech respectfully and within the boundaries of decency and intellect.
In the era of cancel culture, increased polarization and political violence it will be crucial for universities to protect free speech. Historically, protecting and fostering free speech has been a key function of universities. When students graduate they take with them a commitment to a free and open society. Unfortunately, the country as a whole is not providing models for free speech in the current political moment, and political actors are relying on partisan rhetoric and ad hominem attacks to convey their ideas. The UConn community must ask itself: if universities do not commit to protecting free speech, then who will?