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American Council on Education president discusses limits on free speech on campuses

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

All right. We now know the aftermath of a congressional hearing on campus speech. The president of Harvard will keep her job, receiving resounding support from the university. The head of the University of Pennsylvania is out. Lawmaker Elise Stefanik had pressed Liz Magill on whether an extreme statement would violate university codes of conduct.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELISE STEFANIK: At Penn, does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn's rules or code of conduct? Yes or no.

LIZ MAGILL: If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment, yes.

STEFANIK: I am asking - specifically calling for the genocide of Jews. Does that constitute bullying and harassment?

MAGILL: If it is directed and severe or pervasive, it is harassment.

STEFANIK: So the answer is yes.

MAGILL: It is a context-dependent decision.

INSKEEP: The absence of a yes-or-no answer appears to have been a factor in Magill's resignation. Ted Mitchell is following all of this. He is president of the American Council on Education, which weighs in on these matters. Good morning, sir.

TED MITCHELL: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What does this episode reveal about the rules for speech on campus as opposed to anywhere else?

MITCHELL: Yeah, it's certainly a moment. I think that free speech is certainly one of the pillars of higher education. It's one of the most important areas of academic discourse and academic freedom. But more importantly, free speech is one of the ways in which colleges and universities encourage students of whatever age or stripe to confront ideas that they're not comfortable with and to confront people who may have very different points of view. That's an important part of education. On the other side, there is the Title VI mandate to create a safe and equitable, non-discriminatory environment. So those two things have always been in tension. And I think we're seeing that tension playing out in real time today.

INSKEEP: It seems to me, if I can interpret a little bit here, Republicans were pressing on this in a political context in a House hearing for a variety of reasons. But one of them was to point out what they see as hypocrisy. A lot of elite universities have embraced the idea that doesn't seem very consistent with free speech - the idea that speech is literally violence, and that if someone says something that bothers a particular group of people, they should be actively punished. And then at least Stefanik is essentially saying, why aren't you doing that in this particular context? Is it fair to say that there is a double standard or some hypocrisy here?

MITCHELL: Well, I think it's not exactly a double standard. I think that people are very comfortable with free speech, as long as they agree with the speech itself. I think it becomes very difficult for people to support free speech when that feels like it is running counter to deeply held beliefs. I think that that back and forth happens on the left. It happens on the right. And we've seen that over the last several years on college campuses in America. And Steve, I want to emphasize - there are guardrails, and certainly there is speech that pushes up against those guardrails. And institutions have to be protective of their students' safety. On the other hand, this is part of what we expect from our higher education system, is we expect the raucous confrontation between different idea sets to help people really learn and challenge themselves.

INSKEEP: I'm going to ask you a hard, perhaps unfair question, but you're the expert here, so maybe you'll have an assessment. What if you were in that congressional hearing and asked that question just a little bit differently? Should something like calling for the genocide of Jews be against a university's code of conduct, and can it legally be against the code of conduct?

MITCHELL: Yeah, and I don't want to reproduce the hearing, Steve, but I think that the place to start with an answer to that is yes. And then it becomes more complicated in the adjudication, in the details, in the gathering of facts and evidence. But I think that on its face, statements supporting genocide are themselves very, very harmful.

INSKEEP: And then I guess you have to follow up when you say, everything else, the details, it's how do you approach that? How do you punish it or address it, given that there is a First Amendment in this country? That is the issue that universities face.

MITCHELL: Exactly so. And again, going back to my general sense that over time, this has been a tension between these two things. And it's - there are lots of attempts, and speech codes are one of them, to create clear, bright, permanent lines. And historically they've just never worked. This is just something that needs to be - a tension that needs to be managed, not a problem that needs to be solved.

INSKEEP: Is there a pendulum here, that universities were really going after a lot of speech a few years ago, and now things are beginning to free up again?

MITCHELL: I think that that's right. I think that there's always a pendulum. It swings back and forth. It's very sensitive to whatever the social issues are, whether those are abortion and prolife, whether those are the Dobbs decision, whether that's civil rights, or going back even farther, the whole issue of who gets to go to colleges and universities. So we're bellwethers, there's no doubt about that.

INSKEEP: If you had a couple of seconds to answer this, do you feel that students in universities generally are getting a wide range of ideas - exposed to a wide range of ideas?

MITCHELL: I do, and I think that the discourse today on Palestine and Israel is evidence of that.

INSKEEP: Ted Mitchell is president of the American Council on Education. Thanks for your insights - really appreciate it.

MITCHELL: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.