November 16, 2006

 

A Special Report on Free Speech at Columbia University

                                               

 

Dear fellow Senators:

 

I want to relay to the Columbia community a report on the deliberations that have gone on within the Student Caucus about the free speech issues we face at Columbia University. The Caucus is looking to enlarge the debate we are having among students to include the faculty and administration, as well as inform the community of the importance we attach to this topic.

 

Within the Caucus, the debate surrounding free speech includes these questions: Who are students allowed to invite to campus? What considerations must be taken into effect when inviting speakers to campus? Should we require that speakers have an open question-and-answer period when they speak? Where do we, as Columbia, draw the line between one’s own rights of expression and another’s? How do we ensure that the purpose of our institution to foster intellectual growth is protected?

 

None of these questions have found a firm consensus of opinion within the student body. There is, however, a majority opinion that students, and student organizations, should have the right to invite whomever they wish to Columbia to speak on topics of their choosing. However, this opinion is contested by students who feel that certain speakers have opinions that are so objectionable that they are damaging to those who disagree with them. They argue that all students have a right to feel safe and accepted within our community. Certain speakers’ speech, they argue, infringes on this principle.

 

This debate is followed by questions surrounding the intentions behind having certain speakers on campus. Given that the overarching goal of this university is to foster learning and scholarship, some students feel this is best accomplished by allowing anyone to speak on our campus, while others feel that certain speakers do not have an academic purpose, and are invited to speak only to foster an atmosphere where tolerance of other opinions is not respected. Students often ask if the advisors for student groups should ensure a balance, and when a group wishes to invite a speaker with views that could be seen as controversial, that the advisors take this into account and ensure the academic purpose of such an event. Again, we find little consensus.

 

Many students suggest that speakers can be invited to speak on any topic they choose, but that there must be an open period of questions and answers inclusive of anyone attending the event. However, this is contested by the idea that student groups, in conjunction with their invited guests, have the right to conduct their events as they see fit, without outside regulation and interference.

 

The majority of students agree, however, that we must ensure that all people who are involved in any event are physically protected. We also agree that we must ensure that students who wish to voice dissent can do so in a productive manner.

 

One of the hardest debates we have been having is on where free speech stops, and on where productive dissent infringes on the right of an invited speaker to speak freely. Many students have said activity that effectively prevents a speaker from speaking is an infringement on such rights. One of the places where common ground has been reached is on this topic, on the validity of a buffer zone of sorts around an invited guest. For example, while students have every right to protest a speaker and his or her views, they do not have the right to enter that speaker’s space while speaking—at the podium for example. This is seen as a significant disruption of the speaker’s ability to have his or her say as a guest of the University.

 

As we continue this debate, I hope to invite comments from the other members of the University Community.

 

Respectfully Submitted,

 

 

 

Christopher Riano

University Senator

Chairman—Student Affairs Committee