The Collegian
Tuesday, August 09, 2022

Civil rights scholar advocates for free expression at universities

<p>The Queally Center for Admission and Career Services.</p>

The Queally Center for Admission and Career Services.

Civil rights scholar Fred Lawrence spoke as part of the fourth and final free expression forum, moderated by President Ronald A. Crutcher, at 5 p.m. Monday, April 8, in the Queally Center. 

The end goal of the free expression forum series is to move toward understanding among members of the University of Richmond community about what UR stands for, Crutcher said. 

Lawrence suggested a broad statement of principles and a reliance on case-by-case decisions as the basis for a university administration’s approach to free expression. 

Crutcher does not want a policy or rules about expression and wants to stick to a statement about expression that adheres to the values of the university community, Crutcher said. 

Lawrence brought his experience as the current secretary and CEO of Phi Beta Kappa, an academic honor society, and as former president of Brandeis University, to the discussion of free expression at UR. 

When developing a free expression statement, it is important to come back to the basic operating principle of the institution, Lawrence said. This principle for a university is the creation of knowledge. 

The university administration should allow speakers whose presence will further the creation of knowledge, even when their views are offensive to students, faculty or staff, Lawrence said. However, if the administration believes that a speaker will not further the creation of knowledge, then they can be prevented from appearing.

The core of any rules about expression is being content-neutral, Lawrence said.

“If you’ve got a neutral rule, or what you think is a neutral rule, that always yields substantive results that you like, I got to bet you don’t have a neutral rule,” he said.

Lawrence cited a specific example of how he responded to offensive speech as president of Brandeis University. 

Some faculty had used extensive anti-Semitic speech in a listserv, which was then leaked to a student and then to an online media outlet, he said. In response, Lawrence issued a statement that said no faculty member will ever be punished for expression but that these views did not represent the best values of Brandeis University. 

An institution should have a meta-value, one about permitting free expression and pursuing knowledge, that prevents it from punishing faculty for not sharing its values, Lawrence said.

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“We tolerate intolerance,” he said.

A university is not a punitive institution — it is an educative institution, Lawrence said. By punishing people who express views that the institution does not hold, the potential for education is lost.

“You’ve lost the moment,” he said. 

Lawrence encouraged asking those who act outside of the values of the institution, “Is this who you want to be?” 

An institution also has the responsibility to seek to define itself by what its values are, rather than simply by what they are not, especially in response to expression that does not fall in line with it, Lawrence said. This responsibility manifests itself through community responses to offensive or hurtful behavior, he said.

While president of Brandeis, Lawrence hosted an event called, "We are Brandeis," to respond to the presence of the Westboro Baptist Church on campus, he said.

"Because that's the way to resist the Westboro Baptist Church," Lawrence said. "Not by just fighting them, not just by saying, 'we're not that,' but by saying, 'we're this.'"

Emma Johnson, a first-year student who attended the event, said that the idea of defining values in terms of the positive rather than the negative was new and interesting to her. 

Lawrence also acknowledged that although speech should be protected from institutional punishments such as firing or expulsion, it may result in the protection of harmful speech as well. But such speech is not protected from criticism by community members, he said. 

And there is an exception to the toleration of intolerance, Lawrence said.

“If this really is being done to threaten somebody, that is different,” he said.

Lawrence also broached the topic of trigger warnings. If a trigger warning means contextualizing a conversation, then faculty are remiss if they do not provide them, he said. However, if a trigger warning entails not requiring a student to read material because it might trigger them, it is antithetical to the principles of creating knowledge, he said. 

Contact columns editor Cal Pringle at

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