A literary organization released a report Monday recommending that American universities support students’ freedom of speech to amplify marginalized voices.
The PEN America report argued that student protests support free speech on college campuses unless they prevent others from listening to speakers. PEN America is the largest chapter of PEN International, an organization that aims to defend writers’ freedom of expression.
The report used UCLA as a case study and described the campus debate over the Israel-Palestine conflict, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
The controversy started with the push by Students for Justice in Palestine to boycott, divest from and impose sanctions on companies that do business with Israel in 2013. The undergraduate student government voted several time to call on the UC Board of Regents to support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
The report also discussed an incident in which Undergraduate Students Association Council members questioned a student running for a position on the judicial board because of her religion. In February 2015, USAC members asked Rachel Beyda about her ability to maintain neutral because she was Jewish.
“Both students and faculty observed that the attention paid to the UCLA controversies on social media and in the national press contributed to a heightening of tensions and, at times, a hardening of positions,” the report stated.
PEN recommended that universities balance inclusivity and freedom of speech in forming policies relating to guest speaker events, student protests and creating safe spaces. For example, universities should not cancel events or withdraw speaking invitations because of threats of violence or protest, except in the most extreme cases, according to the report.
“(United States) campuses must become more diverse and inclusive,” said PEN American Center executive director Suzanne Nossel. “At the same time, advancements can’t come at the expense of protection of free expression.”
University administrators can condemn speech while defending the speaker’s rights, the report said. Faculty members, whose viewpoints do not represent the views of the university, should be protected and be able to speak more freely than administrators.
E.J. Graff, the report’s lead investigator, also said she thinks social media users who intimidate or threaten others as a reaction to speech pose a serious issue to free expression.
“People should be able to say and do things without an online mob coming after them,” Graff said.
The report concluded by emphasizing the need for increased education for college students on issues of free speech.
Contributing reports from Ryan Leou, national news and higher education editor.