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Stand up for campus free speech: A word to the wise, and DePaul

DePaul University is struggling to process the idea that a college campus is a place to explore ideas, including controversial or disagreeable ones.

The school has to figure out — quickly — whether to embrace the words of its president, the Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, who staked out a pro-free speech position in May. He described the gold standard for dealing with expression on campus: "Universities welcome speakers, give their ideas a respectful hearing, and then respond with additional speech countering the ideas."

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Simple, right? At the time, Holtschneider said he was ashamed for DePaul at the chaotic scene that erupted when a conservative student group, College Republicans, brought a lightning-rod speaker to the Chicago campus. The guest, trash-talking British journalist Milo Yiannopoulos, was shouted down by some audience members, one of whom stormed the stage and grabbed the microphone from the moderator.

The incident compelled Holtschneider, who steps down in 2017, to write a campuswide email in which he apologized to College Republicans for having the group's speaker interrupted. Administrators and students, he said, "have some reflecting" to do about how to deal with appearances by divisive figures. Every action has a reaction, though, so a few days later Holtschneider apologized, again — this time to aggrieved students for "the harm that was unleashed by a speaker whose intent was to ignite racial tensions and demean those most marginalized, both in our society and at DePaul."

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It's August now and the new school year soon will start. It's also a very noisy election year. Not surprisingly, politically active kids on campus want to stay engaged, and some may wish to test the school's resolve. So DePaul College Republicans and a second conservative group, DePaul Young Americans for Freedom, made requests: to bring back Yiannopoulos and to invite another contentious guest to campus, conservative commentator Ben Shapiro.

The university rejected both requests, citing security issues.…

DePaul, as a private Catholic university, can set its own rules on speaker invitations. But if it takes its role seriously as a place of learning and discourse, it should commit to respecting free expression — not with lip service, but with courage that becomes routine.

That means making plans to bring Yiannopoulos and Shapiro to campus this fall. There are ways to manage appearances by flamethrowers, starting with controlling who attends. Most of those at the Yiannopoulos event were not DePaul students. A DePaul-community-only audience would be easier to manage.

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Events such as these will be hard for some students to stomach because the goal of a provocative speaker is to goad. That's OK. Let the kids in the audience feel some discomfort. Let them retort too. And let them learn an important lesson about democracy: All speech deserves protection, even — or rather, especially — the stuff they find repugnant.

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