In Our View: Protect Free Speech

The Evergreen State College found out how sticky, tricky the concept is today

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After agreeing to pay $500,000 and settle a lawsuit from two professors, officials at The Evergreen State College can move forward from the student protests of this past spring. But at Evergreen and elsewhere, discussions about free speech on campus should remain robust.

Last school year, the college in Olympia found itself at the intersection where expressing one’s opinion meets a desire to stifle the opinions of others. Along the way, it touched upon issues that have led to much criticism of American universities. Free speech, safe spaces, and the silencing of dissent have become frequent topics of discussion.

The lesson, as always, should be that a free society means occasionally being confronted with speech or ideas that we disagree with, and that shutting down opposing viewpoints with harassment or threats of violence is not an acceptable alternative to reasoned discourse.

The trouble at Evergreen State came about as a result of changes to the college’s annual “Day of Absence.” White students were asked to leave campus for a day to talk about race issues, and a white professor, Bret Weinstein, publicly criticized the request and called it “an act of oppression.” Weinstein was hounded on campus, and Evergreen President George Bridges expressed support for protesters by calling them “courageous.” Weinstein and his wife, also a professor, took legal action that resulted in the $500,000 payout announced last week. They left their teaching positions, and university officials rejected accusations of a racially hostile environment.

Since its founding in 1967, Evergreen State has celebrated its status as an unconventional college. Instructors, for example, provide written evaluations of students’ work rather than handing out grades. But questions about free speech — and the oppression thereof — have become endemic at institutions of higher learning across the United States.

At many universities, trigger warnings are provided to alert students to possibly uncomfortable subject matter; safe spaces are provided where students can avoid talk of politics or race or other sensitive topics; and guest speakers deemed by some to be offensive often draw protests rather than thoughtful discussion.

In this regard, colleges are not much different from the country at large. By interacting almost exclusively with like-minded people and seeking out media that reinforce personal biases, Americans are increasingly living in ideological silos. These traits are magnified on college campuses, where politics and social issues inherently are topics of discussion.

The University of California at Berkeley, often considered the birthplace of the 1960s free speech movement, has become a centerpiece for renewed debates about speech. Several conservative speakers have been met with raucous and sometimes violent protests in an attempt to censure conservative views on campus. This has led to much-deserved criticism aimed at university officials, who recently paid $600,000 to employ extra police for an appearance by a conservative columnist.

That is costly, but freedom isn’t free. It is essential for colleges to protect and promote all viewpoints, ensuring that universities welcome a wide range of contributions to the marketplace of ideas.

The Evergreen State College should embrace that ethos, having learned from the mistakes of last spring. In allowing a professor to be vilified for speaking out about a sensitive subject, college officials demonstrated a misguided understanding of the meaning and importance of free speech.