University President Robert J. Zimmer and Brown University President Christina Paxson discussed free speech and the First Amendment on college campuses at a Washington Post event on Tuesday.
Moderator and Post higher-education writer Nick Anderson opened the talk by recognizing that universities have become hotbeds of debate about free speech in recent years. He asked why this matter has become so relevant, especially on college campuses.
“There is a very serious problem,” Zimmer said. “If you are actually considering the nature of education that universities should be aspiring to provide, it demands an environment in which everyone is mutually challenging each other.”
Anderson asked Zimmer about the “provocative” letter released to incoming college students last summer that condemned the creation of safe spaces and trigger warnings.
Zimmer said that the phrases “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” are used by different people to mean different things, and that to a certain extent, the problem of the debate was a definitional one.
He added that trigger warnings were developed as a response to post-traumatic stress disorder, but that the phrase has shifted in meaning and usage.
“The word segues into a whole bunch of other areas where it is very questionable that it’s appropriate to have policies that actually apply that people are supposed to provide these warnings.” Paxson agreed, noting that at Brown, professors are given a large degree of discretion as to whether or not they want to use trigger warnings.
Zimmer interrupted, stating that there has been a “misunderstanding” in the controversy surrounding the letter—professors at the University of Chicago also have freedom to choose if and when to use trigger warnings.
“Faculty do what they want in their class,” Zimmer said. “If somebody wants to say something [like a trigger warning], then that’s totally within their jurisdiction.”
Anderson asked whether or not this meant that Zimmer supported trigger warnings in some cases. Zimmer reiterated that he believes it is a matter of the professor’s discretion and that having a University policy would be “off-base.”
Zimmer brought up reader responses to his editorial in The Wall Street Journal last August about his beliefs on speech issues to make the point that some individuals do not feel that they can speak freely about their views. He said that he has heard from students and faculty around the country that they are nervous to share their views. Asked by Anderson if he was referencing conservative views, Zimmer said that depending on the time, region, and campus, this could come from any point on the political spectrum.
“There’s going to be sometimes where you get pressured from the self-identified left and sometimes where you get pressured from the self-identified right. This is not an issue where there is some narrow focus on one group or another.”
Anderson then asked Zimmer how he felt about hecklers at public events and questioned whether or not protesting and harassment could be distinguished.
“Protest is an absolutely legitimate form of free expression. Any attempt to say that protest needs to be limited or controlled because of not liking protests is in itself just another example of constraining free speech,” he said. “Protest itself is absolutely part of what universities should expect and should embrace…. What you cannot do…is to arrogate the right of free speech to yourself, to say ‘I can speak, but that person can’t….’ So the heckling and disruption is arrogating to yourself the right of free speech and eliminating it for other people, and that’s simply not acceptable.”
Anderson asked what role universities should play in providing security for controversial events where tensions might bubble over. Zimmer spoke about a 2015 event in which a writer from the controversial magazine Charlie Hebdo came to speak shortly after the magazine had been the subject of a terror attack.
At the time, the student group hosting the speaker was responsible for covering any security related to the event, but as tensions mounted, the student group could no longer afford to pay security. Zimmer says the University footed the bill.
“It becomes very problematic if every time there is some slight security issue, that that becomes a reason for canceling,” Zimmer said.
Before the conclusion of the event, Zimmer reiterated that freedom of expression is one of his top priorities.
“I think it’s very important that universities and colleges take this free expression issue as definitional for who they are and what a university is,” he said. “Being focused on that priority has to become a guiding principle rather than ‘Gee, we care about it, but there’s other things we care about, too.’”