Free Speech and Thoughtful Dialogue

1 November 2023

In my remarks at Opening Convocation in September, I spoke about the importance of academic freedom at Carleton. The ability of all faculty, staff, and students to share differing views and opinions on a wide variety of topics is a critical component of a robust liberal arts education. We work hard at creating a diverse community precisely because we have so much to learn from each other.

The heartbreaking events of the last few weeks in Israel and Gaza pose a tremendous test of our ability to hear, listen, and respond thoughtfully to widely divergent views. Deep history across many generations, strong emotions about intolerable acts, and the constant drumbeat of social media commentary have led to sharp divides, even within strong communities. Across the country, and on a few college campuses, we have seen this polarization manifest itself as antisemitism, Islamophobia, or general demonization of those who disagree. I know that on our own campus, some students have said that they feel isolated or scared as a result of their identities or opinions.

In response to this challenge, we have tried to encourage and model respectful exchanges of views. For example, the “teach-in” held two weeks ago with faculty from Religion, History, Hebrew and Judaic Studies, Political Science, Arabic and Middle East Studies provided a compelling example of informed commentary and thoughtful questions. Student groups have tried to enter into dialogue with each other at the same time that they have held meetings, rallies, vigils, and other events in support of their own perspectives. 

We know that stating one’s views in any of these venues can feel risky, which is why it feels important to reiterate the College’s support of every community member’s right to share their opinions. At the same time, it is worth reminding ourselves that the right to speak comes with the responsibility to stand behind what you say, and that freedom of speech does not mean freedom from hearing criticism of your views. 

Even as we reaffirm your right to speak out, I ask that you consider the impact of your words on others, and weigh that cost when deciding when, where, and how to share your views. The goal of educational dialogue and debate is to sharpen, define, and differentiate opinions so as to create a more nuanced understanding on all sides. Social media, by contrast, creates a crystallization of discourse in which particular words and phrases can take on coded meanings as a result of the contexts in which they appear, making the impact of such rhetoric even greater. I hope that, as a learning community, we will lean toward face-to-face communication and thoughtful discussion.

I know that there is a tremendous reservoir of good will and desire for mutual understanding in the Carleton community. I hope that we can draw on that good will and grace, as we continue to confront these difficult issues in dialogue together.

Featured in Carleton Today, November 2, 2023.