On free speech: Developing guidelines for campus democracy

Luke Valadie

Controversial guest speakers have been hot topics on college campuses for years now. It’s been two years since former President of the College Adam Falk made national headlines for, in his own words, “taking the extraordinary step of canceling a speech by John Derbyshire.” However, our divided political atmosphere has brought more radical voices to the forefront, and so the debate over what should and shouldn’t be permitted in campus dialogue remains relevant to our community.

Falk’s handling of the Derbyshire incident has been lauded by some and criticized by others. I’m not making an argument about whether it was right for him to cancel that particular speech. Instead, I’d like to criticize the lack of a cohesive system for drawing a line between free speech and hate speech.

Derbyshire’s speech was cancelled in a judgement call by Falk. This might have been a reasonable method in the early days of the campus free speech debate, but it’s time for the College to develop proper mechanisms for handling these questions. A sound approach would be to establish a set of principles that these decisions should be based upon, and then to uphold those principles with a democratic body. First, the criteria for controversial viewpoints to be considered hate speech rather than free speech should be fleshed out as much as possible. Of course, this is a subjective question, and universal agreement will never be reached, but achieving some kind of democratic consensus among students, faculty and the administration is an important first step in developing a policy.

Judgements about how the policy applies to particular situations should not be made unilaterally. The responsibility for objectively applying the criteria to a speaker without the influence of personal bias should be spread over multiple people so that individual whims are less likely to influence the decision. And since the principles would be decided upon by students, faculty and administrators, representatives of each of those groups should be involved in applying the principles. It’s also important that this body be composed of a diverse cross-section of the campus community in order to ensure that voices aren’t ignored in the decision-making process.

This is not the only approach to handling questions of free speech on campus, and it may very well not be the best one. Whether or not this is the system we adopt, it’s important that something concrete is done to prepare for the inevitable debates that will take place here in the future. Our decisions as a community should be based upon sound, shared principles and democratic consensus. As long as these decisions are made by the administration alone, our status as an open intellectual community will be in question.

But there is a catch: once the College’s principles on free speech are established and codified, it will likely be difficult to adjust them. We need to ensure that the principles do not overstep their boundaries. They’re intended to prevent both hate speech and intellectual censorship; I have no doubt that they’ll be effective at stopping the former, but if we don’t tread lightly, then they could be applied to block controversial (but not hateful) opinions. The College has the chance to set an example for how questions of free speech should be handled in campus settings. We should make sure that it’s an example of tolerance and openness, not democratic censorship.

I’m hesitant to endorse any system that places restrictions on what can and can’t be said. Truly open speech is one of the most powerful tools that communities have to foster critical thought and continually improve themselves. Even though freedom of speech can be used as a tool to share ignorant opinions, I’m convinced that the principle remains a powerful force for good. But the fact of the matter is that colleges are in the business of regulating what opinions are given a platform on their campuses, and it looks like they will do so for the foreseeable future. As long as this is the case, the kind of system that I’ve outlined would mitigate the chances of unilateral censorship.

I’d also like to note that I remain convinced that any government policy along these lines would be catastrophic to democracy. This system would be implemented to balance intellectual openness with the accepting environment that modern colleges aim to provide. Colleges already restrict what opinions are given platforms, largely because of community demand; this system is a refinement and democratization of those restrictions. If our community is going to make these kinds of decisions, we should make them with sound principles and shared responsibility. But the campus community must be the limit of these restrictions, as truly unconditional free speech, with all its imperfections and potential bigotry, is the foundation of democracy.


Luke Valadie ’22  is from Bradenton, Fla. His major is undecided.