Sunday, Dec 17, 2017
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Opinion

UT still has work to do on free speech

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In its annual report on the state of free speech on U.S. college campuses, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) raised the University of Toledo’s free speech grade from “red” to “yellow.”

There are three possible grades: Red means speech is mostly stopped on campus. Green means speech is free. Yellow is in between.

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As FIRE puts it: “Yellow light colleges and universities are those institutions with at least one ambiguous policy that too easily encourages administrative abuse and arbitrary application.”

Relative to what is happening at many universities in the country, several of them once great, the rating for UT is a relief. UT does not actively quash free speech!

But that is is hardly a point of pride.

In 2014, UT, as an institution, was not sure that students had the right to peacefully protest a speech by Karl Rove.

A university in this nation ought to be a bastion of free speech. At the very least, universities ought to meet the nation’s legal standards for the protection of speech and expression. Many of our universities get a failing grade in this regard. UT has improved to a C-minus.

The university violated speech laws most recently in March of this year, when it took down signs and flyers promoting a white separatist group called Identity Evropa. Odious though the group may be, its posters impinged upon the actual rights of no one.

The posters didn’t even threaten the dubious rights the University of Toledo has dreamed up for its students: “To be free from fear or intimidation and physical and/​or emotional harm.”

Should the right to be free of the fear of physical harm be put on the same plane as the “right” to be free from fear of emotional harm? What human being in the wider world is able to exercise the latter right?

The posters merely read, “Protect Your Heritage,” with the group’s name in the subtitle, and Michelangelo’s David in the background. While the ideology behind the message is one all Americans should reject, the words themselves do not constitute a physical threat, or hate speech.

If the right to free expression exists only inside the boundaries of others’ sense of comfort and safety, then it does not really exist at all.

College is a place where young people encounter, and hopefully transition to, the world as it exists beyond the safe confines of home and hearth. White supremacists are unfortunately a part of that world. The real emotional harm here is being done by college administrators who, in seeking to shield the students’ eyes and minds from scary ideas and the people who hold them, stunt their emotional growth and leave them unequipped to face the complexities of life.

Students who felt emotionally harmed by the Identity Evropa posters need to toughen up and get a life. The university should be in the business of helping them to do that.

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