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Fulton student: Schools must be places where different views are welcomed, not spat upon.

I am delighted to share a new piece by Fulton County high school student Andrew Liang. He is a former reporter for the Scholastic News Kids Press and has appeared as an education commentator on the  Today Show,   CNN, and MSNBC. You can read an earlier Get Schooled essay by him here.

Given this weekend's fractious events on the presidential campaign trail, Liang's words have application well beyond college and high school campuses.

By Andrew Liang

The president of Williams College recently announced the cancellation of an upcoming speech by John Derbyshire, a former writer for the National Review known for his controversial racial views. Indeed Derbyshire had been invited to speak by a student organization called “Uncomfortable Learning,” which aims to expose Williams students to provocative speakers and their beliefs.

But Williams president Adam Falk abruptly canceled Derbyshire’s appearance. “We have said we wouldn’t cancel speakers or prevent the expression of views except in the most extreme circumstances,” Falk said in a statement. “We’ve found the line. Many of his expressions clearly constitute hate speech, and we will not promote such speech on this campus or in our community.”

The statement suggests the college’s administration believes simply providing a platform for someone to express controversial opinions compels the college to “promote such speech” and amounts to endorsing the speaker’s beliefs. Falk, who leads one of the nation’s most prestigious liberal arts colleges, had earlier called for students to “think critically” and “express themselves fully,” but his cancellation of Derbyshire’s speech demonstrates the difficulties of encouraging students to explore different opinions while placing limits on their ability to do just that.

Yet this instance of suppressing provocative opinions on a college campus is hardly an exception. In recent months, other public figures looking to speak at universities across the nation have faced significant opposition from students solely due to their opinions.

In the past two years, both former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and World Bank President Robert Zoellick have decided to turn down invitations to speak at colleges after fierce student protests over their support of the Iraq War. IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde similarly declined an invitation from Smith College after students and faculty objected towards the work of her organization, claiming the IMF was “imperialist and patriarchal.”

And this past November, Yale University was embroiled in a firestorm of controversy when a faculty member responded to the university’s Intercultural Affairs Committee, which had asked students to avoid “culturally unaware or insensitive” Halloween costumes.

Erika Christakis, the Associate Master of a Yale residential college, penned her own email to students, asking if there was no room “to be a little bit inappropriate or provocative” and reminding students that their peers were permitted the right to exercise their freedom of speech.

The backlash toward her message was vehement. Many students demanded her resignation. One student was captured on video screaming profanities at Christakis’ husband Nicholas, also member of the faculty. Faced with harsh criticism, Erika Christakis resigned from her teaching post a month later. Her husband has decided to take a semester-long sabbatical in 2016.

Days later, Princeton University students calling themselves the “Black Justice League” demanded their university provide them with a safe space on campus — an area dedicated to only African-American students. At an institution that has traditionally taught students to think critically about all perspectives and gain a broader worldview, students are now instead demanding “a refuge” from potentially offensive opinions.

This nationwide movement toward restricting uncomfortable or simply different views has an enormous cost. Students and faculty are losing their ability to effectively discuss important issues for fear of offending someone or expressing an unpopular idea.

Ironically, in most recent cases, the students themselves—and not universities—were the ones demanding limitations on free speech. Colleges that have long championed the liberal arts education are now seeing students who are so intolerant of other beliefs that they refuse to listen to opposing opinions and even insist on preventing others from doing so.

The current level of student self-censorship is a significant matter of concern for a nation founded upon the principle of freedom of expression. For our society to successfully progress, our students must be taught to respect and value the rights of others to freely voice their opinions.

In fact, many of the most productive relationships form between people with antithetical opinions. The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative, was famous for his close partnership and friendship with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a justice whose views fall on the opposite end of the political spectrum. Scalia was also known for hiring liberal law clerks for the sole purpose of providing opposing opinions, in order to strengthen his own legal arguments.

As a community and as a nation, we have a responsibility to teach our children to embrace a similar spirit and a culture in which different views are welcomed, not spat upon.

High schools and secondary schools play an equally critical role in shaping a more tolerant student mindset. Schools can better prepare students for college by encouraging them to engage in meaningful and unobstructed dialogue on controversial questions. Instead of avoiding uncomfortable discussions, schools must teach students to have them with respect and civility. All high school English and Social Studies classes should be offering more opportunities for students to have conversations about contentious issues and to examine the various points-of-view, especially ones with which they disagree.

If we can promote respectful discourse among our students early on, we can shape future college classes to be more respectful of each other’s opinions and more open-minded. Perhaps then, university administrations will also be less inclined to limit freedom of expression in attempts to prevent student uproar, as Williams College did.

As we continue to ignore the intolerance of opinions permeating our nation’s high schools and colleges, we allow today’s students -- including future civic leaders --to unwisely and gradually hamstring our society’s ability to debate and solve its most pressing issues. Our nation and our schools can and must do a better job in educating students to be more accepting of differing ideas.

The story goes that Voltaire once remarked, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” If we instill in our students and in future generations only a fraction of such mutual respect, our country’s best days will undoubtedly be ahead of us.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.