The Collegian
Tuesday, June 25, 2024

OPINION: Campus free speech does not undermine diversity and equity

<p>Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian</p>

Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian

The University of Richmond has been working on pushing and promoting freedom of expression on its campus after calls from students to create a clearly defined policy governing freedom of expression. Yet this policy has not come without controversy. 

On Oct. 11, The Collegian published an opinion piece by sociology professor Eric Grollman that attacked UR’s push to promote free expression. The piece is misleading and inaccurate, and fosters a medley of logical fallacies.  

There are three areas where the article misrepresented the facts. First, Grollman stated that several men in the lineup of free expression speakers last year were “politically conservative or libertarian.” However, I researched the men Grollman cited, and could not find any instance of a single one identifying with or lobbying for a particular party or ideology. In fact, many of these men have lobbied for traditionally liberal principles and have criticized Republicans such as President Trump.

Second, Grollman also misrepresented the use of police officers at Sharp Viewpoint Speakers Series events, saying that the university’s security “show[s] the lengths UR is willing to go to protect the speech of conservatives.” However, as they mentioned, these precautions were in place at all Sharp events, for liberal and conservative viewpoints alike, and no speaker was immune to questions or protests. 

Third, the article also misstated the Chicago Principles. When I read the University of Chicago’s statement, I noticed that it did not mention trigger warnings or safe spaces. Grollman argued that adopting a policy on free expression takes us one step closer to banning safe spaces and trigger warnings. However, the student government association resolution that called for the creation of a free speech policy does not even enter the realm of barring these concepts, only calling upon UR to develop a policy similar to that of the University of Chicago.

Click to view the Richmond College Student Government Association's resolution that calls for the creation of a freedom of expression policy.

In addition to being misleading and dishonest, the arguments themselves were specious at best and dangerous at worst.

Grollman argued that by approving a policy protecting free speech on campus, UR leadership is trying to “actively push to support a right-wing agenda to infiltrate the seemingly liberal system of higher education.” 

By actually looking at the history of free expression in higher education, one sees that it is hardly a new concept, and it is hardly the polemic against liberalism that Grollman claims. 

The push for clear protected free speech on college campuses has historically been a product of the "Old Left." The history of free speech in the United States includes successful attempts to allow left-wing speech during the turmoil of the Red Scare and to allow political activities supporting the civil rights movement. To say that a free speech policy promotes right-wing values seems to misunderstand both the history of the policy and the inherent value of the policy, which is to protect the promotion of all viewpoints.

Additionally, Grollman seemed to argue that free speech and inclusion are mutually exclusive. It follows from this argument that a campus where varying viewpoints are encouraged is automatically harmful to the inclusion of minority students. As a woman of color who personally seeks to advance antiracist positions that liberate women and gender minorities, I find this notion to be dangerously paternalistic. 

The viewpoints of minority students represent a range of opinions and cannot be boiled down to one protected school of thought. Minority students at UR are as smart, well informed and committed to intellectual inquiry as their peers. We should not be treated as if we all have the same view and need protecting from certain ideas. 

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This leads us to the heart of the issue: a false dilemma forcing people to choose between free speech or inclusion. As an institution, our values can include intellectual inquiry, open discourse, inclusion and diversity, none at the expense of another. 

However, we must create a campus culture where students are not administratively prohibited from sharing controversial viewpoints but are subject to rigorous debate, criticism and engagement by their peers and by faculty members. There is a remedy for offensive and unpopular speech: the wrath of popular opinion and student pushback.

Regarding the inclusion of minority speakers, the fact is that we will invite speakers diverse in gender and race only if we are actually committed to inclusion and ready to do the legwork to invite minority speakers to campus -- regardless of whether we have a clearly defined speech policy. If something as basic and fundamental to a functioning democracy as free speech threatens campus inclusion, then we ought to reexamine our campus rather than institute censorship, for there must be a deeper problem than robust discourse. 

If UR is a university truly committed to inclusion and diversity, a free speech policy should not threaten those values. Rather, it should allow those values to come to light and be reflected in discourse, presentations and arguments.

Contact contributor Meghna Melkote at

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