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The delicate balance of free speech

By: R. Gerald Turner

Posted: 4/17/07

Supporting the right of free speech, especially regarding content that can be offensive morally, religiously, politically and academically, is a challenge faced continually by institutions of higher education nationwide. The issue is especially delicate when, as part of leadership training, an institution gives student groups the ability, under certain guidelines, to originate or co-sponsor events that may include controversial topics and speakers.

Over the past weekend, two events co-sponsored by SMU student groups in campus facilities have stimulated debate on whether the university should allow such events involving external groups that espouse views contradicting accepted scientific and/or historical findings and processes. Each instance requires balancing sometimes conflicting but cherished academic and human values with the tradition of free speech and open dialogue embraced by our nation and this institution. In my 12 years as president of SMU, I have leaned toward free speech when the balance is close.

To be sure, there are topics and circumstances that warrant institutional intervention, perhaps leading to cancellation of the event. These include content or activity that threatens safety or violates standards of decency. The most difficult and delicate cases are those in which content rises to an egregious level of offense, and the institution must make a judgment call on whether this circumstance is extreme enough to warrant restriction of free speech. One of the obvious thorny elements in such decisions is that the level of offense can vary according to the eye of the beholder.

In most cases, the institution simply restricts its involvement to reaffirming its educational values and making clear that the event's location on campus does not imply the university's endorsement of its content. The student group sponsoring the event then coordinates the program. It is entirely appropriate, however, for the subject matter experts on campus and elsewhere to challenge information that ignores or distorts knowledge based on bonafide research, thus invigorating campus dialogue and making the situation a teachable moment. The recent commentaries and letters of SMU science faculty regarding last weekend's "intelligent design" event are a good example.

We monitor our policies and procedures to ensure that campus groups sponsoring events are following university procedures, that they gather sufficient information before providing sponsorship, and that they work appropriately with campus officials in managing issues that may arise. Those issues may include consideration of freedom of speech and the worthiness of program content, but debating and addressing them will be an important part of the students' learning experience, and perhaps our own.

About the writer:

R. Gerald Turner is the president of SMU.
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