Worthy of Free Expression

I was in Washington, D.C. this week to give a talk on "why liberal education matters" at American University. Most of the audience had been in conference sessions all morning Friday while I sat glued to the TV watching events unfold in Paris. I'd lived in Paris for a few years, and I looked with horror at these familiar streets as they filled with the almost familiar sight of terrorism response teams. At another level, I was anxious for the students from my own school (and their families) who had just arrived for their study abroad semester. A city I love was under siege.

The attacks in Paris remind us that those willing to destroy freedom of expression in the name of their own totalitarian commitments can wreak havoc in a society determined to maintain openness and tolerance within the rule of law. I feel immense sadness for those who were slain by the terrorists, and I also feel admiration for those who have taken to the streets of Paris to express their compassion, solidarity and courage.

I began my lecture by acknowledging the victims of these heinous assaults. There can be no liberal education today worthy of the name without freedom of expression, without open-ended inquiry and the potential for aversive thinking. That's the kind of thinking that will often rub some people the wrong way -- it will seem to some people "disrespectful" and "uncivil." That's the kind of thinking we must protect -- even more, that we must stimulate.

Some took this occasion of the murders of journalists and Shabbat shoppers at a kosher market to carp about speech codes on college campuses. Sure, we must be careful not to limit expression in the name of civility or decorum. But if you'd seen any college newspapers, blogs or apps lately, you'd hardly think this was a major problem.

I do often hear people talk (on the left and on the right, with status and without) about "feeling silenced" by something somebody else said or did. We've all heard the complaints that certain ways of talking making others feel uncomfortable, even "unsafe." Please. When we "fight" for freedom of speech on campuses, we are using words, pencils, pixels. That's to be expected -- and when it is especially contentious and illuminating, even admired (admiration can encourage expression, too). But this has little to do with fight we are up against when confronted with violent extremists willing to murder for revenge, God or both.

Let us remember the journalists, police and other brave souls who were killed by those who could not abide difference and challenge without resorting to murder. Let us cultivate the spirit of satire and of critique, but also of reverence and of affection, in ways that challenge the conventions of the moment.

And let us be worthy of the freedom of expression that came under attack this week in France.

Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His most recent books are "Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters" and "Memory, Trauma, and History: Essays on Living With the Past."