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Opinion

Another view: Free speech on campus?

If the University of Illinois is to answer the question in the affirmative, officials must stand ready to protect all speech – especially the unpopular.

Illinois President Timothy Killeen is overseeing a forthcoming declaration reiterating the university’s commitment to the principles of free speech.

But he recently gave a preview of what to expect, one that was both encouraging and discouraging.

He said the Illinois intends to ensure that “students are exposed to the full diversity of concepts and ideas.” It’s always good to see the Illinois agreeing with the fundamental idea behind the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But Killeen also spoke of ensuring student “safety” when it comes to evaluating speech, a word that has been used to shut down speech on some campuses.

At the same time, Illinois College of Law Dean Vikram Amar said that so-called hate speech is, for a very good reason, constitutionally protected speech while warning that some “rabble-rousers” aren’t worth hearing or, more importantly, being invited to campus.

Amar is absolutely correct that some people are far more deserving of an audience than others.

But who decides? Ah, there’s the rub.

Just as one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, one person’s compelling speaker can be another’s utter bore or offensive provocateur.

That’s why the issue is not so much who’s invited to campus to speak, but what type of reception will be granted to the invited speaker.

It should go without saying – but, unfortunately, no longer does – that all speakers should be given a polite reception and that any protests be peaceful.

But the current mood on campus is one of extreme intolerance in some quarters toward those who take positions disfavored by enforcers of campus orthodoxy.

Only last week, an Illinois student group promised the same kind of response here if anyone runs afoul of its self-proclaimed rules.

The Students for Justice in Palestine issued a statement indicating it is willing to use violent tactics to stop people it deems fascists, white supremacists and Zionists from speaking on campus because “speech is not just expression but violence.”

The student group stated that “we do not believe there is any other option (than violence) when it comes to dealing with fascists and white supremacists.”

“Granting them any platform will only lead to further normalization of their violent ideologies,” decreed the Students for Palestine.

The main, but certainly not the only, problem with that assertion is that it’s the SJP that decides who is a fascist, white supremacist or Zionist, and it will come down on anyone who disagrees with the organization’s world view. That’s particularly true as it relates to Israel, which the SJP characterizes as both fascist and white supremacist.

It’s especially disappointing that college campuses, once beacons of free speech, inquiry and thinking, have become the segment of American society most hostile to those noble concepts.

Perhaps it will change one day – preferably sooner rather than later. But if the respectful airing of points of view on controversial issues is to become the rule, rather than the exception, Illinois is going to have to stand up for what is right – freedom of speech for all.

The tepid defense of free speech that Killeen hints at won’t get the job done.

Illinois officials need to let campus speakers stand or fall in the marketplace of ideas, oversee law enforcement practices that strictly separate hostile political factions and make it crystal clear that those who violate campus rules will be punished, not given a pass.

The (Champaign) News-Gazette

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