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The Complexity of Free Speech and Campus Safety

Those who have followed almost any news stream over the last few weeks have seen campus demonstrations play out across the nation in opposition to the Israeli-Gaza War. University leaders have an important and delicate responsibility to protect First Amendment rights while, at the same time, ensuring campus safety. We also have a legal obligation to facilitate a campus environment free from discrimination and harassment. This means making real-time assessments about when a demonstration or speech potentially threatens the safety of others. On college campuses there are also time, place, and manner policies to ensure that expressive activities do not disrupt the operations of the University. 

I write this morning to simply remind the SIUE community that there remains a strong commitment to protecting free speech, popular or unpopular, offensive, or affable, in an environment that embraces the exchange of diverse views on every aspect of human society. The policy that governs expressive activity at SIUE is clear. The University does not impose restrictions on the content expressed by individuals or groups. The policy is also clear in that the University will take the necessary measures to ensure public safety and that University operations are not disrupted. Please take this moment to review the policy and information on what is protected and unprotected speech.

It is interesting that the recent demonstrations have been likened to those on college campuses more than 50 years ago in opposition to the Vietnam War. The challenges and complexities of facilitating free speech and demonstrations on campus are not new.  The role of public universities, in my view, is to serve as places where ideas and diverse viewpoints are tested, debated, and discussed. However, this must be balanced by the obligation to the institution’s mission and public safety.

As we navigate this chapter of history together, it is important to remember that we are a university that fully embraces a commitment to respect, inclusivity, and intellectual freedom. Let me encourage us all to see the humanity of those with different views, let us listen for deeper, more nuanced understanding, let us model the kind of civility we wish to see in society.

James T. Minor, PhD