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Protecting Campus Free Speech, Even When It Challenges Beliefs

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Colleges and universities are struggling with the question of who decides what is acceptable speech on campus. When does a controversial topic become hate speech? When should it be allowed as free speech?

Two Cornell University researchers say psychological science’s extensive study of bias offers an important lens to view these conflicts, understand and reduce them.

There is no alternative to free speech, say co-authors Stephen Ceci, professor of developmental psychology and Wendy Williams, professor of human development in “Who Decides What Is Acceptable Speech on Campus? Why Restricting Free Speech Is Not the Answer.” Their analysis appeared in Perspectives on Psychological Science as the lead article.

“Free speech isn’t just for opinions that we all share. That kind of speech doesn’t need protecting,” Ceci said. “It’s for expressions that can be vile and hateful and disgusting. That has to be part of the cultural understanding.” Students should be made to understand they are entering a place that believes deeply in the importance of dialogue and free speech, according to Ceci.

Since the 1950s, psychological science has demonstrated that many types of bias can prevent opposing sides from accepting the validity of each other’s arguments

For people with selective bias, “it’s not just that they interpret their perceptions differently; they actually see different things,” Ceci said.

This and many other biases explain why a sizable percentage of students favor banning nearly every controversial topic. “In such a climate, the heckler’s veto reigns supreme and any expression that is offensive to any subgroup on campus would be banned,” Williams said.

College experiences should involve challenging our beliefs, even when those experiences go beyond our comfort level, and no campus group has the right to determine for the entire community what can be discussed, the authors said.

Just as colleges require that freshmen understand codes of conduct for sexual harassment, plagiarism and intoxication, they could require freshmen to understand the differences between free speech and hate speech, between First Amendment protections and speech codes, and the meaning of “evidence.”


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