Finally! A University President Takes a Stand for Free Speech

Recently the University of North Dakota suffered two similarly disheartening events.

In a period of less than one week, two Snapchat photos surfaced showing people connected with the University engaged in what could be perceived as racist (or at the very least racially insensitive) behavior. In the first photo, three white female students took a picture of themselves in their dorm room and then captioned it with the words “locked the black b**** out.” The phone belonged to the student they were speaking about and was apparently done in an effort to anger the girl.

The second photo was of four white women, supposedly also UND students, wearing black facial masks (which could easily be seen as “blackface”) with the picture captioned “Black Lives Matter.” This photo was not directed at anyone in particular (unlike the first photo), and may have just been meant in jest, but coming so quickly behind the other picture it led to a firestorm on campus.

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President Kennedy expressed his disgust with the racially charged photos and the image of the university that they portrayed.

“I am appalled that within 48 hours two photos with racially charged messages have been posted on social media and associated with the UND campus community.

It is abundantly clear that we have much work to do at the University of North Dakota in educating our students, and the entire university community on issues related to diversity, inclusion and respect for others…”

In the wake of the two pictures going viral and UND becoming the center of a conversation on race and racism, some students met with University president Mark Kennedy to demand a “zero tolerance” policy towards offensive speech on campus. While many other schools around the nation have folded to similar demands from activists and turned their own campuses into soviet-styled gulags against free speech, President Kennedy stood firm and defended UND’s embrace of free speech.

As part of the conversation with student leaders, we talked about the concept of Zero Tolerance. While I appreciate the desire for such a policy, it is unachievable under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The challenge we all face is to find the balance between wanting to eliminate expressions of racism and bigotry and supporting the free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment. If we value freedom of speech, we must acknowledge that some may find the expressions of others unwelcome, painful, or even, offensive. We can, however, speak out and condemn such expressions, and we can work to create a more welcoming and inclusive environment.

It’s nice to see a college president choosing to decry racism and bigotry without calling for an end to free speech. We can be against the evil of racism while still defending everyone’s right to free speech. It is not an either/or scenario. Without free speech, we cannot live in a truly free society. So no matter how well intentioned the college nannies might be, shutting the mouths of their opponents is never the right answer.

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