Campus Newspaper Controversies Highlight Debate Over Free Speech

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Campus activists have condemned two columns published this month in the Brown Daily Herald as racist. (yan da / Flickr)
Campus activists have condemned two columns published this month in the Brown Daily Herald as racist. (yan da / Flickr)

Are college campuses killing free speech? It's a deliberately provocative question, but we're asking because it seems as if campuses are growing less tolerant of provocative speech.

Here are a couple of recent examples: The Argus, the student newspaper at Wesleyan University, recently published a controversial op-ed that questioned the efficacy of the Black Lives Matter movement. The student writer also wondered if the movement should bear responsibility to attacks on police officers made in its name.

The backlash was quick. Later on, the paper's editorial team published a front page apology for the "harm" the op-ed caused. And just this past weekend, the Wesleyan student government voted 27-0 to slash the newspaper's funding.

And, earlier this month, something similar happened at Brown University. The Brown Daily Herald published an opinion column that argued Native Americans should be thankful for colonialism, and another that claimed white-skinned "Eurasians" were first able to domesticate livestock, which supposedly made their societies superior. Again, the backlash was swift, with groups across campus alleging that the newspaper had "harmed" Brown University.

So, is this the messy tumult that comes with healthy, democratic discourse? Or are allegations of "harm" and calls to de-fund newspapers the sign of something else — of a lack of tolerance, openness and acceptance of a true diversity of opinions on college campuses.


Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University. He tweets @mroth78.

William Keach, professor of English at Brown University.

Harvey Silverglate, defense attorney and author of “The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses.” He tweets @HASilverglate.


The Wesleyan Argus: Why Black Lives Matter Isn’t What You Think

  • "It boils down to this for me: If vilification and denigration of the police force continues to be a significant portion of Black Lives Matter’s message, then I will not support the movement, I cannot support the movement. And many Americans feel the same. I should repeat, I do support many of the efforts by the more moderate activists."

The Wesleyan Argus: Staff Editorial: In Response To Tuesday's Op-Ed

  • "We, the editors-in-chief, acknowledge the frustration, anger, pain, and fear that members of the student body felt in response to the op-ed 'Why Black Lives Matter Isn’t What You Think' published in The Argus on Tuesday, Sept. 15. We hear the community’s concerns about the piece’s treatment of police brutality and its implications about the lives of people of color. We sincerely apologize for the distress the piece caused the student body."

Roth on Wesleyan: Black Lives Matter And So Does Free Speech

  • "Debates can raise intense emotions, but that doesn’t mean that we should demand ideological conformity because people are made uncomfortable. As members of a university community, we always have the right to respond with our own opinions, but there is no right not to be offended."

The Atlantic: Will Black Lives Matter Be A Movement That Persuades?

  • "On campus and on social media, leftist activists can remain inside a bubble that gives them an inflated sense of their own power and the efficacy of intimidation tactics. Effecting change in the real world requires a far different tool kit."

The Brown Daily Herald: Maier '17: The White Privilege Of Cows

  • "Thus, whenever I see a white college student, reeking of privilege, I recall the coincidence (or causal relationship) between white physical features and animal agriculture."

The Brown Daily Herald: Paxson P’19, Locke P’17, Carey ’91 MA ’06: An Open Letter To Students On Power, Learning And Responsibility"

  • "At the same time, The Herald, like any student organization, is an educational activity. Students learn by doing, and doing inevitably involves mistakes. The test of character of any individual or institution is the learning that follows the mistake. In our view, the current leadership of The Herald has forthrightly owned that they caused harm and did not live up to the expectations of the Brown community."

The Brown Daily Herald: Letter: Some Acts Of Expression Can Be Harmful

  • "Eugenics and related discourses of racial superiority and inferiority aren’t just disgusting ideas or theories: They are sets of beliefs that have historically been — and are still today — intrinsic to regimes that destroy the lives of ethnic minorities."

The Brown Daily Herald: Dichter ’17, Gulati ’17: Some Speech Hurts — And That’s Okay

  • "Ultimately, students are well within their rights to ask for censorship, and The Herald is well within its rights to censor material it deems inappropriate for publication. Nevertheless, when students ask for insulation from unpopular, controversial or offensive ideas, they cheapen their own educational experience and fail to live up to the goals of higher education."

The Brown Daily Herald: Dean-Johnson ’16, Dunbar ’16, Gorodilova ’16, Sedivy ’17, Shiver ’17: On Whiteness, Free Speech And Missing The Point

  • "Productive discomfort involves questioning systems of power and recognizing our privileges and assumptions; it does not involve questioning the humanity of others. This is not a teachable moment. Using people of color as teaching tools is a profound failure of empathy and respect."

This segment aired on October 21, 2015.


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