Oberlin Must Protect Diverse Opinions

Duncan Reid, Contributing Writer

Across college campuses nationwide, the right to free expression is endangered.

In the past three years alone, one lawmaker in Wisconsin threatened to withhold funding from University of Wisconsin Madison because they were offended by a course dealing with race and ethnicity, Tennessee passed a law prohibiting universities from using public funds for a “sex week,” or to “promote the use of gender neutral pronouns,” South Carolina lawmakers voted to cut funding to two colleges that assigned LGBTQ-themed books as required reading for first-year students, and a Michigan Senate subcommittee threatened to fine universities for “any instructional activity that encourages or discourages union organizing of employees.”

Universities have also rejected the formation of certain student groups based on political beliefs or viewpoints, including Students for Justice in Palestine at Fordham University, an NAACP chapter at Catholic University, and pro-life groups at Johns Hopkins and Gonzaga University.

Currently, Oberlin policies that protect speech are not being enforced — like the censorship of professors’ out-of-class speech and posters for the Oberlin College Republicans and Libertarians being torn down — and the vagueness of harassment and “moral” policies leave those policies vulnerable to administrative abuse. If there is one policy that says that speech should be protected and another that allows administrators to prohibit what they perceive to be questionable or lewd speech, what policy should be followed when difficult decisions have to be made? The selective nature of Oberlin’s policy enforcement leaves the College just one incident away from joining the list of institutions that value campus placidity over meaningful discourse.

Oberlin is talking the talk, but not walking the walk. What is the point of making the “diversity of thought” a value if nothing is done to advance the exchange of ideas?

While schools like the University of Chicago have come out with statements that give their students “the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn” and have conducted policy reviews, Oberlin has been silent. If Oberlin seeks to continue to lay claim to being a truly liberal campus, where diversity of thought is not just allowed, but desired, we need a campus-wide conversation and a thorough review of student conduct policies to ensure that our rights to free speech are not abridged.

Across the nation, as schools have tightened up speech codes and rejected speakers on political premises, a group of diverse students has come together to make the case for free expression on their campuses. From Arizona to Vermont, Students for Free Expression, a non-partisan student activism group, are advocating for their administrations to create environments where discourse is uninhibited by fear of censorship or intimidation.

As the Oberlin campus representative of SFE and as a student senator, I will be introducing a bill to the Senate that will reaffirm our commitment to the most essential of liberties and signal to the new administration that it must defend Oberlin’s stated value of being “tolerant of divergent views.” We must signal to the world of higher education that schools of all sizes, affiliations, and political backgrounds should value all types of diversity. In order to craft the leaders of tomorrow, we must allow students to debate ideas that some might find dangerous.

Oberlin College has long been the arena in which ideas that would have been curtailed elsewhere have flourished because of our school’s commitment to allowing a free exchange of opinions. When students on other campuses have had discussions barred, Oberlin students have been allowed to debate. When slavery was a taboo across national campuses, Oberlin hosted the Lane Debates. When divestment was unheard of, Oberlin had a discussion. If Oberlin succumbs to popular trends that squash students’ ability to speak freely, we will no longer be that arena for change.

It is easy to allow ideas to go unchallenged and to dismiss outright those ideas that students find wrong or offensive. It is easy for an administration to reject a speaker because students will protest. It is easy to shun classmates who might take a different view on an issue than the majority. When we take that route, we lose our ability to defend what we value and to point out what we find wrong in opposing arguments. We lose the marketplace of ideas, and with it, we lose progress.

Oberlin’s marketing slogan as of late has been, “Think one person can change the world? So do we.”

God help anyone who tries to change the world without hearing out the other side.