The Volokh Conspiracy

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Campus Free Speech

Ben Sasse on Speech and Protest at the University of Florida

The former Senator says "the adults are still in charge" in Gainesville


Ben Sasse, President of the University of Florida, has an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal explaining his approach to speech and protest at UF. The op-ed articulates three principles that other universities may wish to follow.

First, universities must distinguish between speech and action. Speech is central to education. We're in the business of discovering knowledge and then passing it, both newly learned and time-tested, to the next generation. To do that, we need to foster an environment of free thought in which ideas can be picked apart and put back together, again and again. The heckler gets no veto. The best arguments deserve the best counterarguments.

To cherish the First Amendment rights of speech and assembly, we draw a hard line at unlawful action. Speech isn't violence. Silence isn't violence. Violence is violence. Just as we have an obligation to protect speech, we have an obligation to keep our students safe. Throwing fists, storming buildings, vandalizing property, spitting on cops and hijacking a university aren't speech.

Second, universities must say what they mean and then do what they say. Empty threats make everything worse. Any parent who has endured a 2-year-old's tantrum gets this. You can't say, "Don't make me come up there" if you aren't willing to walk up the stairs and enforce the rules. You don't make a threat until you've decided to follow through if necessary. . . .

Appeasing mobs emboldens agitators elsewhere. Moving classes online is a retreat that penalizes students and rewards protesters. Participating in live-streamed struggle sessions doesn't promote honest, good-faith discussion. Universities need to be strong defenders of the entire community, including students in the library on the eve of an exam, and stewards of our fundamental educational mission. . . .

Third, universities need to recommit themselves to real education. Rather than engage a wide range of ideas with curiosity and intellectual humility, many academic disciplines have capitulated to a dogmatic view of identity politics. Students are taught to divide the world into immutable categories of oppressors and oppressed, and to make sweeping judgements accordingly. With little regard for historical complexity, personal agency or individual dignity, much of what passes for sophisticated thought is quasireligious fanaticism.

One thing I learned from the article is that UF is imposing a three-year suspension on students who violate these policies, as in a three-year prohibition from campus. Writes Sasse: "We said it. We meant it. We enforced it. We wish we didn't have to, but the students weighed the costs, made their decisions, and will own the consequences as adults."