I previously praised the position of my alma mater, The University of Chicago, in refusing to limit free speech with the creation of safe spaces and speech codes. Indeed, the courageous position of UChicago stood in sharp contrast to the troubling position of my other alma mater, Northwestern University (which has only grown more hostile to both free speech and academic freedom). Now, Northwest Vista College president Ric Baser has declared himself squarely on the speech regulation side of academia with a chilling rejection of a broad array of speech as hate speech, including words that “spread” or “provoke” or “create” “animosity and hostility.” Baser’s San Antonio Express-News op-ed titled “Hate speech does not equal free speech shows not only a disturbing lack of understanding of constitutionally protected speech but an intolerance for the speech of those with which he disagrees. Baser’s disturbing comments are part of a letter signed with 12 other members of the Higher Education Council of San Antonio, a group that he heads as president, which include the presidents of other colleges and universities.
While courts have struggled to define the narrow exceptions for free speech, Baser and his colleagues advances a sweeping and reckless “distinction between diversity of thought and disingenuous misrepresentation of free speech.” He seems to relish in the new found freedom to limit the freedom of others: “We further attest that hate speech has no place at our colleges and universities. Inappropriate messages, such as banners and flyers that are meant to provoke, spread hate or create animosity and hostility, are not welcome or accepted.”
In the name of promoting “cultural understanding,” they declare that they will not tolerate “hate speech or activity disguised as free speech.”
We have been discussing how faculty around the country are supporting the abandonment of free speech principles to bar speakers and speech with which they disagree. The most extreme form of this rejection of classical liberal values is the antifa movement. We have seen faculty physically attack speakers or destroy messages that they oppose. We have also seen faculty physically attacked and intimidated. In some of these incidents, other faculty have supported students in shutting down speakers or fellow academics (here and here).
Baser’s disturbing comments are part of a letter signed with 12 other presidents and other leaders. Here are the other signatories which notably include Dr. Cynthia Teniente-Matson, President Texas A&M University-San Antonio and Dr. Taylor Eighmy, President University of Texas at San Antonio. It also includes San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg:
Dr. Ric N. Baser, President
Higher Education Council of San Antonio
Northwest Vista College – Alamo Colleges District
Dr. Bruce Leslie, Chancellor
Alamo Colleges District
Dr. Veronica R. Garcia, President
Northeast Lakeview College – Alamo Colleges District
Dr. Scott Woodward
VP for Academic Affairs and Dean
Oblate School of Theology
Dr. Diane Melby, President
Our Lady of the Lake University
Dr. Mike Flores, President
Palo Alto College – Alamo Colleges District
Dr. Robert Vela, President
San Antonio College – Alamo Colleges District
Dr. Adena Loston, President
St. Philip’s College – Alamo Colleges District
Dr. Cynthia Teniente-Matson, President
Texas A&M University-San Antonio
Dr. Taylor Eighmy, President
University of Texas at San Antonio
Dr. Jim Antenen, Executive Director/Dean
Wayland Baptist University – San Antonio
Marise McDermott, President and CEO
Dr. Danny Anderson, President
Mayor Ron Nirenberg
These leaders have declared that the First Amendment does not protect speech that is deemed (presumably by themselves or their appointees) to “provoke, spread hate or create animosity and hostility.” Imagine how broad that standard would be as faculty and students bar all speech that can be characterized as provoking animosity in others. What concerns me most is the effort to make speech codes and regulations mainstream. While once the view of a minority of faculty calling to speech controls, it is now the position of college and university presidents.
In my view, enforcing this ambiguous and unconstitutional standard should disqualify these signatories as heads of institutions of higher education. As for Nirenberg, his municipal counsel may want to sit down with him for a quick refresher on free speech. I hold no brief for those espousing insensitive or racially provocative speech. However, these standards place our schools and our society on the a slippery slope of speech regulation. Faculty and students are increasingly claiming the right to prevent other students from participating in classes or events — as with the recent protests against James Comey at Howard University. The students interrupted a lecture and were reportedly screaming at other students who actually wanted to learn. I have taken a harsh line on such disruptions of classrooms like a recent incident at Northwestern University. This violates a core defining values of our academic institutions and such students should be suspended for such conduct. There is a difference between voicing your views and preventing others from speaking, particularly inside of a classroom. When you claim the right to prevent others from hearing opposing views or speakers, you are at odds with the academic mission of these universities.
Here is the full letter:
American colleges and universities have always embraced diverse points of view, leading to a multitude of new discoveries and cultural understanding. Higher education is a phenomenal place for minds to be challenged, to inquire, explore, discover and question the status quo.
But from time to time, American colleges and universities witness hate speech or activity disguised as free speech. Such has been the case in recent weeks at several colleges and universities in San Antonio and throughout Texas.
As members of the Higher Education Council of San Antonio, we — the presidents of colleges and universities throughout this community, and supporters — feel it is important to speak out and make a distinction between diversity of thought and disingenuous misrepresentation of free speech. We further attest that hate speech has no place at our colleges and universities. Inappropriate messages, such as banners and flyers that are meant to provoke, spread hate or create animosity and hostility, are not welcome or accepted.
Teaching, research and critical thinking are the founding pillars of higher education. Each and every day, we witness incredible learning opportunities for our students, faculty, staff and community members.
San Antonio’s colleges and universities are stronger and more diverse than ever. During the upcoming Tricentennial, many events, activities and symposiums are being planned at our colleges to honor the city’s multicultural heritage, as well as current and future residents. San Antonio colleges and universities have played an enormous part in the city’s history. We are proud to have been a part of this great accomplishment and will further ensure that it continues to be our focus in the next 300 years.
Please join us in celebrating the power of higher education in the lives of San Antonio residents!