Saving Dmitri: Freedom of speech in universities

In an editorial for the New York Times, comedian Nimesh Patel recounted the story of his being kicked off stage at Columbia University in 2018 after telling an offensive joke. Ben Shapiro, Milo Yiannopoulos, Nicholas Dirks, Riley Gaines and Donald Trump have similar stories of either removal from a college campus or disallowance from speaking or attending many universities based on the nature of their rhetorical and/or literary content. More recently, the ACLU sued Florida Governor Ron Desantis and the state’s university’s chancellor over their attempt to silence anti-Israel groups. This acquittal from exposure to new ideas at universities is a trend that is not going anywhere.

Even professors and faculty are increasingly at-risk when expressing thoughts in centers for higher education, as an article by The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) pointed out. In 2000, FIRE mentioned that there were four instances in which an academic instructor was lobbied to be punished for his or her speech, whereas, in 2022, 145 scholars were tried in the same manner. Of these 145, 67% were disciplined in some way, and 20% of the academic instructors were fired. In this era when “openness” is valued so highly, it somehow has gotten more difficult for scholars to speak their minds.

So, as those who teach become ever more limited in what they believe they can express publicly, the question must be asked: How is corporate lip-locking affecting college students? Last year, Olivia Krolczyk turned in a project to her professor, Melanie Nipper, in a class called “Women’s Gender Studies in Pop Culture,” at the University of Cincinnati. In her project, Krolczyk included the distinction “biological women,” which earned her a zero for the entire assignment, due to this heteronormal language. According to Daily Mail, Nipper insisted that she did not violate the university’s speech policy with the grade.

Nipper claimed that her intent behind failing the student was “to educate her regarding inclusive language to ensure a safe learning environment for other students,” as recorded by the Media Research Center. The professor’s defense of her grading actions aligns partially with the University of Cincinatti’s Department of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion’s (DEI) vow to aid in “complaint resolution,” as Krolczyk’s statement could have incited complaints from LGBTQ members of the class. With this in mind, it becomes clear that Nipper may have been subject to pressure from the department by allowing Krolczyk to use “biological women” as a defining term. It must be grieved though that some in authority now believe it necessary to invoke a failing grade upon one who uses “divisive” specifications.

When professors’ tongues are tied by the twine of DEI or other organizations which occasionally infringe on one’s freedom of expression, perhaps the people most negatively affected are the students. After all, students are the ones paying to learn new ideas, methods, philosophies and facts that they had not known prior to attending a university. However, in bypassing the mention of contentious or unorthodox teaching in order to avoid controversy, professors are, in a sense, demoting higher education to unimposing suggestion in place of sound instruction.

As education’s boundaries are continually confined by a shrinking sphere of permitted words and phrases, students like Olivia Krolczyk are bound to either be silent in the face of untruth or bear the cost which comes with speaking a banned truth. To both respect the philosophical foundation of the West and encourage the diversity of thought that made it so great, it is imperative that college campuses exist as places of refuge for freedom of thought and expression.

To do this, universities must first identify their role in culture as retainers and lenders of knowledge. Philosopher John Dewey once said, “Democracy must be born anew each generation, and education is its midwife.”

Higher education is preservation of freedom. Seoul National University notes the purpose of universities is “to produce high-quality graduates for the job market, to continuously advance the frontier of knowledge in all disciplines and ultimately to advance human civilization.”

The greatest way to “advance the frontier of knowledge,” promote the cultivation of potential, disturb the often-stagnant status quo and raise thinkers and workers fit to defend their principles is to fight for the freedom for all to express their points of view without fear of persecution.

By freeing one’s rhetorical expression, the minds of individuals may also be unrestrained by the emotional whims of those who campaign against a diverse vocabulary. Every university ought to relish in the thought that its students’ ears would be open not only to new knowledge, but offensive ideas, as only ears that are unafraid to hear create mouths that are unafraid to speak. Suppression of speech is plaguing college campuses, and if it continues, then soon an entire culture will suffer the loss of the keepers of knowledge that once existed. Today, there must be some who stand ready to speak the uncomfortable truths that tomorrow’s generations need to be spoken.

So, now in the time when political speakers such as Donald Trump and Ben Shapiro, or even comedians like Nimesh Patel, are being repulsed by universities for their rhetoric, those who carry the greater burden of contending for the faith on college campuses must do so under the threat of retaliation. The presentation of the gospel will prove offensive to many, but the silence of a believer is far greater an offense than violating any law of man.

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).

Kilker is the opinion editor for the Liberty Champion

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