Purdue Takes A Stand For Free Speech, No Matter How Offensive Or Unwise

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels answers question during a news conference after being named as the next president of Purdue Univer
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels answers question during a news conference after being named as the next president of Purdue University by the school's trustees in West Lafayette, Ind., Thursday, June 21, 2012. Daniels will take the helm of the school after leaving office in January and succeeds France Cordova who will leave in July after five years at Purdue's helm. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Purdue University has become the first public institution of higher education to adopt a free speech policy called the "Chicago principles," condemning the suppression of views no matter how "offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed" they may be.

The board of trustees passed a measure endorsing those principles on Friday. Purdue President Mitch Daniels plans to address some of the same points in his remarks at the Indiana university's commencement ceremony this weekend.

The Chicago principles were crafted and approved at the University of Chicago in January and has since been adopted by the faculty at Princeton University.

The free speech principles caught Daniel's eye when they were first released, he told The Huffington Post, and he saw the potential for them to spread to other campuses. He called officials at Chicago to ask permission to copy their statement.

"We didn't see how we could improve on the language," Daniels said. "That captures what we think is right here."

The Committee on Freedom of Expression, a faculty group at the University of Chicago, was organized in July 2014 following what the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) dubbed "disinvitation season" that spring, when student activists across the country attempted to block or un-invite controversial commencement speakers.

Then in November, students at the University of California, Berkeley, attempted to block Bill Maher from speaking at their winter commencement over his past comments about Muslims. Such an irony, the TV host couldn't help but note. Exactly 50 years earlier, Berkeley had been the home of the Free Speech Movement.

The Purdue policy states, "It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose." Nearly identical language appears in the Chicago version.

"We looked at it, our trustees looked at it. We said, you know, this says exactly what needs to be said. We're going to protect all kinds of speech, including the kind we think is ridiculous and completely wrong, and we're going to insist everybody else respect -- at least on our campus -- people's right to be heard," Daniels said.

Asked how he would respond if students attempted to un-invite a speaker at Purdue, Daniels answered, "I would politely tell them, 'Thank you for your advice, but no, we're not that kind of place.'"

University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey R. Stone, who chaired the free speech committee, said there was "consensus pretty much from the beginning on the basic principles" of the statement. Stone is excited to see other schools adopting the same ideas, especially in light of recent speech debates on campus.

"My own personal view is that the level of intolerance for controversial views on college campuses is much greater than at any time in my memory and that it is most unfortunate," Stone said. "College is a time to learn to deal with challenging, unsettling, and even offensive and hateful ideas. In the real world, we are inevitably confronted with these ideas, and college should prepare our graduates to know how to respond to such ideas courageously, effectively and persuasively."

Greg Lukianoff, president of FIRE, said that much of his career has been spent defending free speech against higher education administrators. But over the last two-and-a-half years, he said, "the language policing" started coming more from the students.

"It's really distressing to me and disappointing to me because I enjoy defending students," Lukianoff said.

He can't say what caused the change and hesitates to attribute it to social media, but he did concede the Internet has made it easier for students to interact only within "echo chambers" where they feel comfortable.

"You end up having people who are less prepared to deal with general, fundamental debate," Lukianoff said. Moreover, he expects to see battles over expression "get worse because so many other things are getting better," freeing people to give speech issues more prominence.

Purdue also plans to overhaul particular policies flagged by FIRE as potentially violating the First Amendment.

Both the Chicago and Purdue statements instruct community members to "not obstruct or otherwise interfere" with an opponent's speech, but leave open the possibility for the university to restrict defamation, genuine threats, harassment that "unjustifiably invades" privacy or "expression that violates the law."

"As we've said before, a university violates its special mission if it fails to protect free and open debate," Purdue trustees chair Thomas Spurgeon said in a statement. "No one can expect his views to be free from vigorous challenge, but all must feel completely safe in speaking out."