Why these school leaders are clashing with students’ free speech judgment

"I believe that the commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion actually means that we must protect free expression of all views," Stanford Law School Jenny Martinez wrote in March.

Robert A. Brown, in the twilight of an 18-year career at Boston University, wrote a searing article scolding his student body for the way it received spring commencement speaker and alumnus David Zaslav during the ceremony. Students exercised their right to free speech to shout “obscenities” at Zaslav that would have been “the precursor to a fistfight” back in Brown’s youth, according to the statement.

The protests at Boston University erupted due to the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike, which the union waged against Warners Bros. Discovery and several other Hollywood studios for poor wages and other mistreatment. Zaslav, the president and CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, faced chants, signs and protestors picketing in front of the entrance to the event.

While Brown defended the right to protest and asserted its function to sustain a liberal democracy, Brown repelled the behavior he believes is an offspring of “cancel culture.” Instead of vigorous debate and discussion, he sees this new trend as a mutation to “gain power, not reason.” And BU’s president is not alone in being fed up with students’ interpretation of free speech.

Around the country, several college leaders have spoken up to defend free speech against a student body that they believe steps on free expression. In leaders’ views, these actions form a hostility toward open dialogue and counter the mission of their respective universities. Their opinion isn’t unfounded either; Undergraduate students are by far the most likely demographic to attempt imposing sanctions on college professors.

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Dean Jenny Martinez – Stanford Law School

In March, students stormed a conservative campus event that Trump-appointed U.S. Circuit Judge Kyle Duncan was attending. Facing hundreds of heckling protestors led by the law school’s associate DEI dean, Duncan’s planned talk devolved into a fiasco filled with “idiots,” “hypocrites” and “bullies,” according to Duncan.

Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Law School Dean Jenny Martinez quickly issued an apology, and Martinez was quick to defend why. In a 10-page open letter to the law school’s community, the dean wrote that some protestors “crossed the line” from protest to disruption. “There is temptation to a system in which people holding views perceived by some as harmful or offensive are not allowed to speak,” Martinez wrote. “History teaches us that this is a temptation to be avoided.”

Martinez believes the DEI associate dean and the students worked counter to what diversity, equity, and inclusion stand for. “I believe that the commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion actually means that we must protect free expression of all views,” Martinez wrote.

In the fallout, the DEI associate dean is on leave. Because Martinez found it impossible to differentiate between the students practicing protected forms of speech and those abusing it, she found it best not to reprimand anyone. Instead, she had law school students undergo a mandatory half-day session this past spring semester on free speech and its place in the legal world.

President Martha E. Pollack & Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff – Cornell

While Brown and Martinez defended the First Amendment by calling out attempts to disrupt speech, two Cornell leaders in April denied one student resolution they believed suppresses it.

The resolution, which Cornell’s Student Assembly approved, urged instructors to provide a heads-up in class syllabi for potential “traumatic content,” such as sexual assault, hate crimes and self-harm. However, President Martha E. Pollack vetoed the resolution, writing in a statement alongside Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff that, “Such a policy would violate our faculty’s fundamental right to determine what and how to teach.” The leaders wrote that allowing students to step away from such sensitive content would be detrimental to their intellectual growth and restrict professors’ academic freedom.


Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and Florida Gator alumnus. A graduate in journalism and communications, his beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene, and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador, and Brazil.

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