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Rice Religious Tolerance Essay Contest

Speech Code Category: Advertised Commitments to Free Expression
Last updated: January 26, 2018

The law recognizes in academic freedom a principal means of safeguarding free expression throughout society. In Keyishian, Justice Brennan put academic freedom at the very core of First Amendment protections. Two other justices, Felix Frankfurter in Sweezy v. New Hampshire (1957) and Lewis Powell in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), saw fit to incorporate into their opinions a still more expansive definition of academic freedom, the “Statement of Remonstrance” addressed to the government of South Africa by senior scholars at the Open Universities of Cape Town and Witwaterstrand. “A university ceases to be true to its own nature,” they wrote, “if it becomes the tool of Church or State or any sectional interest. A university is characterized by the spirit of free inquiry, its ideal being that of Socrates — to follow the argument where it leads… . It is the business of a university to provide that atmosphere which is most conducive to speculation, experiment, and creation. It is an atmosphere in which there prevail the four essential freedoms of a university — to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study.”

Quite apart from its value to society at large, freedom of expression is the enabling precondition of the academic enterprise, for where people hesitate to speak their mind, critical thinking has no purchase and the university cannot even begin to carry out its mission. That is why academic freedom and its material complement, tenure, have become defining features of university life. But because free expression can be deeply disturbing, none of us, whether inside or outside of the academy, is immune to the temptation to suppress offensive speech by force, censorship, or intimidation. It is accordingly incumbent on each individual associated with the university — whether as student, teacher, administrator or trustee — to exercise the vigilance and self-restraint without which freedom of expression cannot flourish. In the university, even more than in democratic society at large, the principle of free thought must prevail, not just “free thought for those who agree with us,” as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. warned in U.S. v. Schwimmer (1928), but “freedom for the thought we hate.”

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The best response to offensive speech is neither silence nor censorship, but more speech, preferably cast in the form of arguments exposing the inadequacies of that which offends. Of all the institutions of society, the university is the one most deeply committed to the sublimation of conflict into reasoned argumentation. Far from being a scene of indiscriminate toleration where “freedom of expression” degenerates into “anything goes,” Rice University, like other universities, is properly a forum for judgment and mutual criticism, in which all opinions are entitled to a respectful hearing, none is exempt from criticism, and only those that earn acceptance on their intellectual merits remain in circulation.

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