Dunn says universities should be ‘guardians of free speech’ in politically divided times


Daily Egyptian file photo

By Marnie Leonard

In a column emailed to faculty and staff, SIU President Randy Dunn said universities should be “guardians of free speech” in a time when the country is politically divided and debates rage on over whether inflammatory or polarizing speakers should be allowed to give talks on campuses.

“The best antidote for speech we don’t like, even speech we think is abhorrent, is more speech, not less,” Dunn said. “Let more voices be heard.”

Dunn referenced the University of California Berkeley, which spent about $600,000 on security measures for a speech given on its campus by conservative writer Ben Shapiro last week.


Protesters gathered, and though nine arrests were made, no one was injured.

“This to bring one speaker to campus at a public institution, at the very place where the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s was born,” Dunn said.

Harvard University revoked an invitation to whistleblower Chelsea Manning last week to serve as a visiting fellow at its Institute of Politics due to backlash and the resignation of another fellow — Michael Morell, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Dunn said every day there are more incidents like these, in which administrators rescind invitations to speakers and fellows over concerns for campus safety. He said universities are “becoming free speech battlefields.”

“Free speech may indeed be at greater risk,” Dunn said. “But shame on us if today’s greatest threat to it is coming from those of us in colleges and universities.”

Even SIU, Dunn said, is subject to questions about what speech should be allowed on campus.

He said the campus received an inquiry last week from a nonprofit free speech advocacy organization called the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.


The foundation wanted to know how the university would handle situations in which people are engaging in perceived hate speech, a question which Dunn said stemmed from SIU’s student code of conduct and statements which had been attributed to campus administrators.

Dunn said the group strongly advocates for colleges and universities to uphold the First Amendment rights of everyone on campus by allowing people to “speak freely, without disciplinary action or sanction, to the maximum extent allowed by law.”

Today, Dunn said students seem to want more restrictions on speech, citing a nationwide survey conducted by John Villasenor, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and University of California at Los Angeles professor.

It found that more than half of students surveyed said disrupting a controversial speaker is appropriate, while 44 percent incorrectly believe the First Amendment doesn’t protect hate speech. The findings also showed that 60 percent of students incorrectly think the Constitution requires public universities that host controversial speakers to also host someone with an opposing view.  

Dunn said this is not the way SIU will operate, and encouraged students to engage in nonviolent protest if there are guest speakers on campus they do not agree with.

“There are a lot of people I disagree with, and a lot of people you disagree with, and many people who disagree with both of us,” Dunn said. “But just because we disagree vehemently – or might even take offense – doesn’t mean someone should be disallowed from speaking.”

Campus editor Marnie Leonard can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @marsuzleo.

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