Free Speech in the College Community

Free Speech in the College Community

Free Speech in the College Community

Free Speech in the College Community


Robert O'Neil, a former university president, asks the question: Should speech on the university campus be freer than speech on the streets, in the malls, and parks? He dramatically illustrates the many types of problems that confront university administrators today, frequently using imagined characters and dialogues to present the issues.


Should speech on the university campus be freer than speech on the streets and in the malls and parks? Most of us assume it should be. Conventional wisdom would give maximum protection to academic expression, if only because of the unique setting in which it occurs. The very mission of a college or university depends upon broad latitude for viewpoints in the pursuit of truth and understanding. So of all places in society where people may express controversial views, should not the university campus be the most open and speech the freest?

The answer, curiously, is both yes and no—and for reasons that are equally central to the mission of higher education. The nature and status of campus speech offers an intriguing paradox. Many messages within the academy are indeed optimally protected. Professors, for example, enjoy a far greater freedom to speak and write and pursue research than their counterparts in business or even other professions. Yet in other situations, the very nature of academic discourse actually imposes higher standards than does the general community, with the result that some forms of campus speech may actually be less free than are comparable communications in the larger world.

It might be helpful to begin by examining several of those areas where campus speech is constrained in ways that go beyond the rules of society at large. Three specific interests come to mind and illustrate the paradox. Integrity in scholarship is the first such special interest, and it is central to the nature of academic communication and expression. So high are the standards of honesty and originality in scholarship that plagiarism may well be the most heinous of academic offenses. The misuse of someone else's research or even the failure adequately to acknowledge a debt to another scholar invites drastic sanctions with the universal support of the academic profession. Tenured professors can be, and have been, dismissed for proven acts of plagiarism, even if no harm resulted to the scholar whose work had been misappropriated.

The contrast is striking between the way the academic world views such acts and the standards of the larger society. "Plagiarism" does not . . .

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