SMU and free speech

There are numerous reports again about limits on free speech on college campuses. In particular, conservatives are sometimes being heckled, protests are turning violent, and some appearances are even being canceled. There is a particularly nasty confrontation currently involving conservative author and speaker Ann Coulter and the University of California at Berkeley. The Coulter situation as well as several others of note are particularly sorry situations. There is trouble on the horizon when any university begins to limit speech.

Southern Methodist University does many things right, and one of them historically has been free speech. After several similar conflicts last year over free speech at various universities, I was invited to speak on the subject at the annual Robert S. Hyer Society induction ceremony on the SMU campus. The Hyer Society is the top honor society for undergraduates at SMU.  As noted in my remarks, students under consideration for Hyer Society membership were asked to write essays on free speech. The best essays were read by the students at the ceremony.  A separate file with my remarks can be downloaded here.  For convenience my remarks on the occasion, Feb. 28, 2016, follow:

First, let me congratulate all of the Hyer Society members here this evening, especially those being inducted.  You have attained an exceptional status at SMU, and you represent the very highest standard of academic achievement on this campus.  And to the parents and families, let me say thank you very much.  You have every reason to be proud of your daughters and sons, and we who teach them are honored that you have placed them with us for four of the most important years of their lives.

I suppose my favorite story on free speech would have to be one I read years ago in Vanity Fair magazine.  It was an interview with the Colombian Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  He noted in the interview that it was a story that circulated widely in Europe after World War II.  It was a story of two dogs, one French and one Russian, who meet in a park in Paris.  The French dog is curious about why the Russian dog has come to France.  “It must be because of our beautiful parks,” the French dog suggested.  “We have the best parks in the world.”  The Russian dog replied, “No, that’s not it.  We have very nice parks in Russia.”  “Well,” the French dog quickly added, “you must come here to meet our beautiful French female dogs.  They are gorgeous, you know.”  “No, that’s not it,” the Russian dog said.  “We have very beautiful female dogs in Russia.”  Somewhat exasperated, the French dog said, “Well, why do you come here?”  After a thoughtful pause, the Russian dog said, “I come here to bark.”

I have been honored to travel and work on free press issues in virtually every country in Latin America.  Free speech and freedom of the press continue under assault in several countries.  There is no question but that the vibrancy of any democracy depends on the freedom for all to speak and write free from the limits of government censorship, and often equally as important, self-censorship.  We have a long and cherished tradition in the United States, established in the First Amendment, but with a foundation in the robust exchange of ideas from the Enlightenment.  British poet John Milton is often credited with giving us the concept of the marketplace of ideas.  In his famed essay Areopagitica, first published in 1644, Milton said that if truth and falsehood are allowed to compete in the minds of citizens, truth will inevitably win out.  As we look at what we perceive as a lack of civility and even mean-spiritedness that pervade so much of our political discourse, we perhaps need be reminded that it’s all happened before.  Our founders understood that politics would be a full contact sport.  The name-calling we see has a strong precedent in several elections, but especially the election of 1800 between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.  Jefferson won that election and became one of our greatest presidents.  The names that both men were called in that election would have made my proper Methodist mother blush, were she still alive.  I think it fair to say that Jefferson probably endured the most vicious personal attacks of any president in our history.  And in journalism we honor Jefferson as starting the tradition of the news media as a check on government.  He went so far in his second inaugural address as to say that any government that couldn’t stand up to criticism was a government that deserved to fall.  Out of that tradition has come more than 200 years of understanding and court decisions reaffirming that sharp, caustic debate, and yes, even completely offensive ideas, must be protected in a democracy.

We’ve all read the news accounts of some of the speech issues on some of our university campuses.  We’ve read of speech codes and the so-called “micro-aggressions,” statements that, intended or not, can trigger intense emotional reactions, often of a racially insensitive nature.  Let me be the first to say that despite so much progress on civil rights and expanding opportunities for historically oppressed groups, much remains to be done.  Especially for students of color on predominantly white campuses, full inclusion into the academic and social culture of university life in many cases is yet to occur.

I was asked several years ago by a prospective student if there were free speech zones on the SMU campus.  Honestly, I was taken aback.  It had never occurred to me.  I had read about some universities creating free speech zones, and I never liked the idea and never will.  To me, if you have free speech zones the implication would be that there are areas on a campus where there isn’t free speech.  I can’t think of anything more antithetical to the life of a university than to have any sense that speech is somehow limited.

SMU has a long and well-established history of free speech that many perhaps don’t fully realize. SMU today requires no religious affiliation for students or faculty, and religion is in no way part of our educational requirements for a degree.  But the free speech tradition has it roots in the founding of the university in 1911 by the Methodist Church.  The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was a staunch advocate of free intellectual inquiry and of life experience being essential to Methodism.  Early Methodists in the United States were leaders in establishing institutions of higher education.  Today a number of distinguished universities, including SMU, still have direct ties to Methodism.  But Methodists were involved with founding a number of other universities that no longer have such ties.  And they are some of our best universities, including Vanderbilt, USC, Northwestern, and Duke.  John Wesley was a member of the clergy of the Church of England.  He was one of the great minds not only of theology but of social progress in 18th Century England.  His church provided a range of social services at clinics in London and Bristol, including free health care.  Just six days before his death in 1791, Wesley wrote his last letter to a young member of British Parliament named William Wilberforce.  The letter encouraged Wilberforce in his effort to abolish the triangle slave trade, at that time a significant part of the British economy.  In the letter, Wesley referred to slavery as “the execrable sum of all villainies.” Almost 20 years earlier, in 1774, John Wesley had joined the abolition effort in a public way with the publication of an influential pamphlet, Thoughts Upon Slavery.  Wilberforce had made his life’s work the abolition of the slave trade, and he was finally successful in 1807.  In 1833, as Wilberforce lay on his deathbed, he learned that slavery had been abolished in all the British colonies.

One of the seminal moments in the tradition of free speech on the SMU campus occurred in the spring of 1958.  Willis Tate was the president of SMU, and unbeknownst to him, a student group had invited John Gates, an avowed Communist and former editor of the Daily Worker, to speak.  Tate only found out about the invitation by reading the SMU Daily Campus, and he was not pleased.

In his history of SMU titled From High on the Hilltop, Professor Emeritus Marshall Terry put it this way: “These were Joe McCarthy times and, in Dallas, John Birch times of ultra conservatism when SMU already seemed scary pinko to many.”  The “pinko” reference had been directed personally at President Tate by a columnist in The Dallas Morning News, and Tate had already been heavily criticized by the Ku Klux Klan for permitting the integration of SMU.  Once word circulated that Gates would speak on the SMU campus, civic groups were quick to criticize the event.  Even the SMU Mothers Club expressed opposition to the Gates appearance.

Tate withstood the firestorm and allowed Gates to speak on the campus.  In recalling the incident years later, Tate said he believed it essential for a university to serve as a marketplace of ideas.  Tate is remembered for his firm commitment to academic freedom as well as free speech, and the extraordinary speakers in the Willis Tate Lecture Series provide signature events each year on the SMU campus, benefiting not only SMU students and faculty but also the people of North Texas.

Four of our outstanding students will read their essays this evening.  All provide strong reasoning for free speech on university campuses.  Courtney Tibbetts cut right to the chase in her essay.  She wrote: “While it may not be pleasant, we have a right to offend others as much as we have a right to be offended.   The world can be cruel and offensive–students need to leave college prepared for that.”  Matthew Reitz wrote that open dialogue and frank discussion can address the root causes of hate speech in a way that no speech code can.  Katie Logsdon wrote that when universities such as SMU value diversity, it’s a given that not all will be in agreement with certain ideas that are expressed.  And yet, she notes that growth frequently comes from discomfort.  Chris Warley directly tackled the issue of “micro-aggressions,” noting that many such personal offenses can be avoided with honest, civil dialogue.  All four of these essays are highly nuanced to point out some of the difficult issues that remain in American society and on our college campuses.  And yet they recognize that only through sincere and candid conversation can true understanding emerge.  Each of these students in separate ways has recognized the essence of a university.

I know that you will enjoy hearing these essays as much as I enjoyed reading them.  They speak not only of thoughtful consideration of a complex issue, but also of an academic excellence celebrated through membership in the Robert Hyer Society.  Especially after reading these essays, I am pleased to conclude that free speech, and, yes, barking by both canines and humans, are not only permitted but encouraged on the SMU campus.  Again, congratulations to the students of the Robert Hyer Society and to your families, and thank you very much.



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