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Is free speech in trouble on campus? Experts left and right grapple over it at Duke.

The annual provost’s forum at Duke University delved into the the question of whether the country’s universities are facilitating free speech.
The annual provost’s forum at Duke University delved into the the question of whether the country’s universities are facilitating free speech. rgronberg@heraldsun.com

If conservatives question the free-speech environment on college campuses, liberals have some concerns of their own, judging from the discussions Thursday during a daylong forum at Duke University organized by Provost Sally Kornbluth’s office.

For instance, the oft-heard complaint from the right that college faculties don’t reflect a broad range of opinion glosses over frequent narrowness of the ideological quarrels in this country, Duke Divinity School professor Luke Bretherton noted during the forum’s concluding session in the afternoon.

“When I hear that, I always think about economics departments,” the Briton said by way of responding to a question from Colin Duffy, president of Duke’s College Republicans. “There aren’t any communists in the economics department at Duke. There aren’t even any socialists. There’s not even anyone, as far as I know, who argues for the social-market model of Germany, which is one of the most successful economies in the world.”

Bretherton added that he made the observation to “trouble the waters a little bit about what gets to count as a conservative view, what gets to count as a liberal view and the spectrum of where that sits.”

Another member of the afternoon panel, Yale University professor Zareena Grewal, flipped the script on the complaints about speaker shout-downs of the sort that’ve occurred on some college campuses in the country.

Citing a recent article in the left-leaning magazine The Nation that in turn relied on tracking by a non-profit group, she noted the growing tendency of state legislators in the U.S. to introduce or pass bills to restrict demonstrations or tighten controls on them.

“In some ways, student protests on campus of speakers, they’re the canary in the mine,” Grewal said. “It’s alarming, in general, what’s happening with dissent in our country.”

Thursday’s forum, going in, was supposed to give campus leaders a chance to think about what they mean by free speech and civility on campus in an age when an on-campus appearance by the likes of former Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos was enough to trigger rioting at the University of California-Berkeley.

UC-Berkeley’s law-school dean, former Duke professor Erwin Chemerinsky, participated in one of Thursday’s morning panels and said he’s advised the California institution’s leaders on an overall strategy for dealing with controversial speakers. They’ve elected to “pay the costs” of providing security, expensive though it might be, because they believe in the idea of a “free-speech campus.”

But as a dean, Chemerinsky said he’s also willing to take colleagues aside and counsel them if he sees them “crossing the line into incivility.”

Chemerinsky gave participants a quick rundown on the relevant points of First Amendment law that protect “all ideas and views” on public university campuses, and argued that private universities like Duke should largely follow them as well.

He stuck to that even when Thomas Pfau, a Duke English and Germanic languages professor, noted that German history includes a period “around 1930 where someone would show up and simply pronounce that certain people should no longer exist.”

“Is that an idea? Should it be protected?” Pfau asked.

Chemerinsky said the question underscored the dilemma of whether “our desire for tolerance include having to accept intolerance and those who advocate for intolerance.” But he urged against yielding to the temptation to censor.

“I would say I’d rather have it expressed,” he said. “The idea or view isn’t going to go away by suppressing it. I would rather have the counter-idea and the counterview be there.”

The forum’s keynote speaker, New York Times columnist David Brooks, said there has to be a recognition that “politics is a competition between partial truths” that when pursued to an extreme lends itself to fanaticism. The ensuing tribal impulse fuels demands “to shut down others” and is part of what’s playing out on campuses, he said.

Events like Thursday’s are part of the counter, Brooks said.

“What you see around the country ... is hundreds of people, hundreds of organizations, hundreds of universities who spent the last year shocked and appalled suddenly coming out of their bunkers and saying, ‘We want to do something affirmative, we don’t want that tribal future, we want something else, we want to change the world.’”

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg

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