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Protecting Freedom of Expression on the Campus Essay

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Updated: Nov 11th, 2021

An annotated version of “Protecting Freedom of Expression on the Campus” by Derek Bok in The Boston Globe.

Underlining is to catch key points

*and these stars are where I have a question or opinion on a statement*

For several years, universities have been struggling with the problem of trying to reconcile the rights of free speech with the desire to avoid racial tension. In recent weeks, such a controversy has sprung up at Harvard. *Two students hung Confederate flags in public view, upsetting students who equate the Confederacy with slavery. A third student tried to protest the flags by displaying a swastika*.

These incidents have provoked much discussion and disagreement. Some students have urged that Harvard require the removal of symbols that offend many members of the community. Others reply that such symbols are a form of free speech and should be protected.

Different universities have resolved similar conflicts in different ways. *Some have enacted codes to protect their communities from forms of speech that are deemed to be insensitive to the feelings of other groups*. Some have refused to impose such restrictions.

It is important to distinguish between the appropriateness of such communications and their status under the First Amendment. The fact that speech is protected under the First Amendment does not necessarily mean that it is right, proper, or civil. I am sure that the vast majority of Harvard students believe that hanging a Confederate flag in public view–or displaying a swastika in response–is insensitive and unwise because any satisfaction it gives to the students who display these symbols is far outweighed by the discomfort it causes too many others.

I share this view and regret that the students involved saw fit to behave in this fashion. Whether or not they merely wished to manifest their pride in the South–or to demonstrate the insensitivity of hanging Confederate flags by mounting another offensive symbol in return–they must have known that they would upset many fellow students and ignore the decent regard for the feelings of others so essential to building and preserving a strong and harmonious community.

*To disapprove of a particular form of communication, however, is not enough to justify prohibiting it*. We are faced with a clear example of the conflict between our commitment to free speech and our desire to foster a community founded on mutual respect. Our society has wrestled with this problem for many years. *Interpreting the First Amendment, the Supreme Court has clearly struck the balance in favor of free speech*.

While communities do have the right to regulate speech in order to uphold aesthetic standards (avoiding defacement of buildings) or to protect the public from disturbing noise, rules of this kind must be applied across the board and cannot be enforced selectively to prohibit certain kinds of messages but not others.

Under the Supreme Court’s rulings, as I read them, the display of swastikas or Confederate flags clearly falls within the protection of the free-speech clause of the First Amendment and cannot be forbidden simply because it offends the feelings of many members of the community. These rulings apply to all agencies of government, including public universities.

Although it is unclear to what extent the First Amendment is enforceable against private institutions, I have difficulty understanding why a university such as Harvard should have less free speech than the surrounding society–or than a public university.

One reason why the power of censorship is so dangerous is that it is extremely difficult to decide when a particular communication is offensive enough to warrant prohibition or to weigh the degree of offensiveness against the potential value of communication. If we begin to forbid flags, it is only a short step to prohibiting offensive speakers.

I suspect that no community will become humane and caring by restricting what its members can say. The worst offenders will simply find other ways to irritate and insult.

In addition, once we start to declare certain things “offensive,” with all the *excitement and attention* that will follow, I fear that much ingenuity will be exerted trying to test the limits, much time will be expended trying to draw tenuous distinctions, and the resulting publicity will eventually attract more attention to the offensive material than would ever have occurred otherwise.

*Rather than prohibit such communications, with all the resulting risks, it would be better to ignore them since students would then have little reason to create such displays and would soon abandon them*. If this response is not possible–and one can understand why–the wisest course is to speak with those who perform insensitive acts and try to help them understand the effects of their actions on others.

Appropriate officials and faculty members should take the lead, as the Harvard House Masters have already done in this case. *In talking with students, they should seek to educate and persuade, rather than resort to ridicule or intimidation*, recognizing that only persuasion is likely to produce a lasting, beneficial effect. Through such efforts, I believe that we act in the manner most consistent with our ideals as an educational institution and most calculated to help us create a true understanding, supportive community.

Annotations on “Protecting Freedom of Expression on the Campus” by Derek Bok.

Questions and Comments

The problem of freedom of speech on campus is one of the main problems and a lot of people face this problem from the point of view of offenses and discrimination. How do these notions coincide? People usually want to express what they think in a liberal country, but there are people whose opinions about this or that problem offenses to other people. This problem is rather up to date in the racial and ethnic discrimination situations when one side has the right to express their opinion, and the other is offended and abused. The problem of freedom of speech and racial discrimination should be limited, especially on campus.

The situation is rather contestable in the first paragraph. It is impossible to protect neither of the sides: those two Harvard students, who hung the flag of Confederacy, which was rather offensive for some people, as the flag was the symbol of slavery, on the one hand, and one student, who put the swastika near the flag, on the other.

The third paragraph tells about the fact that some campuses provided some limitations to offense the other ethnical groups. The questions are how they did this and whether the strategy offered was effective.

In the sixth paragraph the ways out of the problem are discussed. The prohibition of expressing the opinion against the minorities will bring the biggest dissatisfaction and demonstrative reaction to the situation.

Further, in the sixth paragraph, the First Amendment of the Constitution is discussed. It is impossible to forbid students to express their opinions in reference to the other nationalities in the form, which does not sound rude, but is rather offensive to others as it will limit them in their right of free expression of their thoughts. On the other hand, the offenses from other students of the racial minority are the violation of the law about racial discrimination.

Paragraph seven offers that students may be forbidden putting the aesthetic beauty of the campus buildings under hazard, making noise, but this is not the way out, as students have a lot of other ways to announce their opinion, which combat the dignity of some people. The problem is rather sharp and at the same time, it should be solved rather tenderly.

Paragraph 12. The situation is rather complicated as students have the right to free expression of their thoughts and to forbid it for them means that a lot of attention will be paid to the problem, which is rather unnecessary in the situation. Two different ethical freedoms and obligations were faced: the freedom of speech and obligation for respect and racial discrimination avoidance.

Derek Bok’s idea about ignoring all the offenses is rather effective (paragraph 13). For the first time, it will be impossible to avoid offenses, abjection, and public assistance, as all of the comments should be ignored. The result of such a strategy should be magnificent, as abhorrence generates abhorrence, and mutual offenses never stop. The silence of the injured will give the result that the offender will get tired of the situation and will stop announcing his opinion aloud as no reaction is seen. It is the life experience and the result of a lot of experiments that people offense the others only with the aim to be perceived higher than the others are, to show his/her priority. When the reaction of the injured follows, this is the main factor to continue offenses. No reaction, no further actions. This is the main way out of the situation. Ignoring the offenses is one of the ways to stop these offenses, as the direct prohibition will lead to the demonstrative reaction.

The 14th paragraph of the article shows that communication is the main way to understanding, and it is teachers’ obligation to stream the conversation in the right direction to avoid racial and ethnic offenses.

Works Cited

Bok, Derek. “Protecting Freedom of Expression on the Campus.” The Boston Globe.1991. Web.

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