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Panelists Discuss Free Speech at BC at BCAAUP Event

Boston College’s student culture is moving in a disturbing direction, according to R. Shep Melnick, the Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr. professor of American politics.

“Free speech, which is a bedrock of liberal democracy, is under attack around the world on many fronts,” Melnick said.

The BC chapter of the American Association of University Professors hosted a virtual forum, welcoming Melnick, Lindsey O’Rourke, Kent Greenfield, and Patricia Lowe to discuss academic freedom and campus speech on Tuesday evening.

According to O’Rourke, a professor in the political science department, free speech issues are generational.

“[Free speech] is clearly not a Boston College problem,” O’Rourke said. “It’s clearly a generational challenge facing higher education today, which isn’t terribly surprising when you think of the polarization of our politics combined with social media.”

O’Rourke explained that while there are free speech issues at many universities, BC scores marginally worse in terms of sample-wide averages. Last October, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education released a report ranking BC 151 out of 159 college campuses in free speech.

“Part of it does seem to be fear of the repercussions from their professors for contradicting them publicly,” O’Rourke said. “But there also seems to be powerful social dynamics going on between our students.”

According to O’Rourke, the University’s representation of political identities is nearly identical to a sample of other colleges, demonstrating that this is not a bipartisan issue, but rather that these concerns are shared across the political spectrum.

“What is particularly discouraging is the decline of respect for free speech and free inquiry on college campuses,” Melnick said. “That’s the place that should be most revered and most protected.”

Greenfield, a BC Law professor, said he agrees with Melnick and believes universities should challenge students, faculty, and administrators to engage in civil debate where disagreements may arise.

“It’s not just about the tools of persuasion and understanding, it’s also building the inner strength of courage to be able to speak up in an uncomfortable moment,” Greenfield said.

O’Rourke and Melnick both said the culture of free speech at BC needs to be improved and advocated for the University to clearly affirm free speech on campus.

“Faculty, too, should lead by example,” Melnick said. “We have lots of lectures on this campus, and I hope we have more debates.”

Lowe, BC’s associate vice president of the Office for Institutional Diversity and Title IX/ADA coordinator, said embracing free speech while recognizing its harmful impacts is not mutually exclusive on BC’s campus.

“Free speech is also to recognize and ensure that we are educating ourselves … and understanding, historically, what that free speech may entail,” Lowe said. “If that is not happening, we will then go into a space where we create barriers or invite potential biases.”

As free speech policies on college campuses evolve, Melnick said it is a concern that people will disregard legitimate political speech.

“There are rules about how you treat other people, employees, or students and proper rules about sexual or racial harassment,” Melnick said. “But I do think that we need to be careful that these [rules] not be expanded to such a way that they impinge on, what I would consider to be, legitimate, political speech.”

According to Lowe, it is important to cultivate “intercultural competence” through exposure to the beliefs and experiences of others in order to uphold free speech.

“What does it mean when we talk about intercultural competence?” Lowe said. “That again, supports how we engage with one another, how we engage in dialogue, and how we are effective in getting our points across … from the different perspective [and] different lived experiences that we all have.”

While the panelists called on the University and faculty to reflect on how they can better embrace free speech, they also encouraged BC students to be open to having difficult conversations.

“We have good reason to worry about things globally, but our best chance of turning things around is to focus on things and act locally here at Boston College,” Melnick said.

Featured Image by Isabel Sullivan / Heights Staff

March 20, 2022