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BU Policies Protecting Free Speech to Get Fresh Look

As rhetoric nationwide intensifies, President Brown requests reviews and reports by fall


“Dissent and protest are essential ingredients in the democratic concoction. Without them an open society becomes a contradiction in terms, and representative government becomes as stagnant as despotism.”—Edward Brooke

In 1966, Edward Brooke (LAW’48,’50, Hon.’68) became the first African American popularly elected to the US Senate. Photo by BU Photography

Almost one-fifth of American undergraduates endorse violence to silence a campus speaker “known for making offensive and hurtful statements,” a 2017 survey found. Some have practiced what they preach.

A melee at Middlebury College in 2017 sent a professor to the hospital after she and scholar Charles Murray, who has argued that there are IQ differences between races, had been shouted off a stage and tried to weave their way through a gauntlet of protesters. The professor had participated in Murray’s talk to critically interrogate him about his views.

Mindful of the contentious political landscape on campuses and off, and sensing a potential threat to freedom of expression, Robert A. Brown, BU president, is creating two committees to review and possibly revise the University’s protocols protecting speech.

“Freedom of expression is a foundational guiding principle for an enduring democracy; it is both a check on power and a means to foster robust discourse,” Brown wrote in an email going out campus-wide. “American higher education has benefited profoundly from strong constitutional protections that have provided our campuses with unmatched scope for intellectual inquiry and an environment where ideas can be tested and sharpened in an atmosphere of serious but collegial debate.”

A Free Speech Policy Committee will draft a statement “that describes and affirms the University’s commitment to free speech,” Brown wrote. Jean Morrison, University provost, and Erika Geetter, vice president, general counsel, and secretary of the BU Board of Trustees, will chair the committee. Simultaneously, a Free Speech Operations Committee, chaired by associate general counsel Rebecca Ginzburg (School of Law’04) and Kenneth Elmore (Wheelock’87), associate provost and dean of students, will explore revisions to existing policies.

“Let the Ann Coulters of the world have their say. Trying to stop Ann Coulter or Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking or any group from marching will not stop the advance of fascism, but rather might strengthen it.”—Joan Baez

Joan Baez playing at the March on Washington in August 1963.

The committees will work through the early fall, when they’ll submit reports for approval by the University Council (professors and administrators who recommend action on academic matters) and the Administrative Council (which considers administrative policies).

But in polarized times, Brown wrote in his email: “The commitment to free speech is tested. As we observe events both on campuses and in the broader society, I believe it is reasonable to suggest we are in such a time.”

Morrison adds that BU has “a variety of independent operational policies” regarding expression, including in the BU Lifebook. Under “Tolerance and Religion,” the publication says the University “encourages the free exchange of beliefs and ideas and the reexamination of one’s values and commitments. With this freedom, however, comes the responsibility to respect the rights of others, including the right not to be harassed or pressured to join a religious group or take part in its activities.”

“But,” says Morrison, “we are overdue for a comprehensive, University-wide conversation about free speech and its manifestation in daily life on our campuses.”

One reason: that troubling student survey was not the lone example of First Amendment–challenged students and administrators making headlines. Last year, feminism critic Christina Hoff Sommers’ speech at Oregon’s Lewis & Clark Law School was repeatedly interrupted by protesters.

“If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand some of these illegal injunctions….But somewhere I read of freedom of association. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech.”—Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59) giving a speech during the 1963 March on Washington.

Meanwhile, events off campus have cost some professors their jobs, as when New Jersey’s Essex County College fired an adjunct who had ridiculed, on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News TV show, whites objecting to a Memorial Day event for African Americans only. The University of Tampa fired a professor who called Hurricane Harvey “instant karma” for Republican-voting Texans.

Today’s battles over speech recall another contentious time: just over half a century ago, when BU’s most celebrated alumnus raised his voice in defense of freedom of expression.

In 1968, on the night before his murder, Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59) decried court injunctions on the Memphis sanitation strike he was in the city to support: “If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand some of these illegal injunctions….But somewhere I read of freedom of association. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech.”

As for violence being used to squelch those freedoms of civil rights protesters, King, who’d been assaulted numerous times for his activism, said, “We aren’t going to let dogs or water hoses turn us around.”

Rich Barlow, Senior Writer, BU Today, Bostonia, Boston University
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

7 Comments on BU Policies Protecting Free Speech to Get Fresh Look

  • Richard Chappo on 02.12.2019 at 7:56 am

    How come all of your examples are against conservatives? Are you going to instruct your professors to stop forcing their leftist views on students? Can a conservative student really speak up in class? You cite a quote from Joan Baez saying that Ann Coulter is a fascist? Because she disagrees with you she is a fascist? If you study history you will note that all fascists came from the left. They took over the government and all means of production. Be fair if you really want freedom of speech.

    • dmost on 02.12.2019 at 9:09 am

      Hi, the quotes were chosen not because of their points of view, but because we sought quotes that were spoken by well-known people with degrees from, or close ties to, BU. That’s why those 3 were chosen. Thanks.

    • Anony on 02.12.2019 at 1:40 pm

      I fail to see how all of the examples provided are “against” conservatives: The article discussed instances where both right-wing (e.g., Christina Hoff Sommers, Charles Murray) and left-wing (e.g., Lisa Durden, Kenneth Storey) speakers were in some way censured for their expressed opinions. I’m also missing the part of the Joan Baez quote where she calls Ann Coulter a fascist: It seems to me that she is calling those “trying to stop Ann Coulter” of advancing fascism. (A claim I disagree with, personally, but I also object to the construction of straw men.)

      Moreover, I wonder how the protection of free speech can be squared, in your opinion, with instructing professors what they can and cannot say in class?

      Finally, do you have any particular reason to believe that a conservative student cannot speak up in class (at BU or in general)? I ask because I have seen this happen on more than one occasion and on none of them did the student in question seem to suffer any consequences other than the disapproval of their peers (which I think you’d agree is an unavoidable risk inherent in expressing one’s beliefs — after all, free speech guarantees your ability to speak your mind, not that you will be well-liked for it).

      • Anonymous on 02.13.2019 at 8:08 pm

        As a right leaning student, I can tell you that I was certainly afraid to speak up in classes whenever politics came up due to the unanimity of the professor’s and class’ opinion. I have also heard other people talk about how they are afraid to speak up in classes as well for the same reason. Yes, it is our responsibility to speak up in class to voice our opinions, but I didn’t because I don’t want to put my grade at risk. Many conservative students do not speak their mind for similar reasons, in fact, this is part of the reason why many conservatives identified with the “silent majority” slogan that Trump adopted (not that I am a Trump fan, but that slogan has some truth to it)

        • Anony on 02.14.2019 at 6:08 pm

          Not to be insensitive, but having an unpopular or minority opinion is not a free speech issue. If you make the choice not to speak because you are afraid of what others might think, I don’t think you can really pin that on the institution.

          Now, if your grade did suffer as a result of expressing a political opinion in class, then I agree that would be a serious issue; that said, do you have any evidence to suggest that your grade would be at risk, or is this merely a hypothetical concern?

  • Nathan Phillips on 02.12.2019 at 9:00 am

    I’m glad to see BU being proactive about this.

    “A Yellow Rubber Chicken: Battles at Boston University”, an essay by the late Howard Zinn, is well worth reading. It is about student activist Yosef Abramowitz placing a “Divest” banner outside his dorm window on South Campus, his right to which was challenged by the BU admin but upheld by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. You can see a picture of his banner here: http://www.bu.edu/today/2013/new-socially-responsible-investing-committee-meets-this-week/

  • Andrew on 02.12.2019 at 12:53 pm

    “Almost one-fifth of American undergraduates endorse violence to silence a campus speaker ‘known for making offensive and hurtful statements.'”

    This is very sad. But more than that, why don’t my fellow young Americans understand that by seeking to silence opposing viewpoints, you actually *empower* those viewpoints.

    I strongly encourage BU to uphold the rights of free speech rights for all BU students. For some, that may include providing security because their views end up drawing the ire of that 20% who thinks that violence is a legitimate method to end a disagreement.

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