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The free speech debate within Beloit College faculty

On Sept. 23, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was invited to speak at Georgetown University’s Law school, despite rampant protests from student activists. Scheduled to speak on  what he called a “recommitment to free speech on college campuses,” Sessions was met with backlash from the student body.  His appearance at Georgetown once again raised a commonly asked question. Should higher educational institutions  allow conservative figures to speak on campus when faced with student opposition?

In the Beloit College community, a similar debate has split the college faculty.

Such student protests against conservative speakers are not uncommon. In February, alt-right blogger Milo Yiannopoulos’ speech in University of California-Berkeley, was canceled because of mass protests and violence on campus . In May, a group of Notre Dame students walked out of their own graduation as Vice President Mike Pence gave the commencement address.

This debate has been examined since the start of this semester at Beloit. There have been several panel discussions in Richardson Auditorium, which have fueled contentious arguments about freedom of speech on campus between the faculty members.

“Freedom of Speech is vital to liberal democracy” says John Rapp, a professor of Beloit’s Political Science department since 1986. “Therefore, I believe if a student organization on our campus invites conservative speakers to speak, we should tolerate it.”

Many younger faculty members strongly disagreed with him. Shadee Malaklou, Assistant Professor in the Critical Identity Studies department, took a far different stance. After pointing out Beloit’s long-standing commitment to be anti-racist, she explained that “It’s dangerous to allow conservative speeches that are hateful, or that generate hate, in our campus. The persons who should be charged with making this decision should include a committee made up of socially conscious faculty, students, and staff.”  Professor Malakou also stated that if there was such a committee in charge of the vetting, then alt-right speakers wouldn’t be able to speak even if a student organization invited them.

Rapp sees such screening processes differently.

“It is gonna be either a majority silencing the minority, or a ruling minority, whose members regard themselves as the vanguards of the others, silencing the majority,” Rapp said, pointing out the danger of what he described as censorship. “If the majority, or the ruling minority, can shut down this kind of speech, it’s possible that another majority can shut down other speeches.”

A new faculty member, Assistant Professor Philip Chen of the Political Science Department, believed that there is no actual crisis of free speech in college campuses across the United States.

Citing an article on Forbes, “the crisis of free speech is largely manufactured by the right-wing media and donors who paid for their visits and speeches,” Chen said. On the contrary, he believes that “colleges in this country, certainly including Beloit, are open to different political opinions.”

Rapp agreed with Chen that the conservative news outlets and donors’ framed such controversies incorrectly.  “Therefore, if we are not letting them speak,” he explained, “we will be [playing by their rules].”

“We can still be open to ideas but [at the same time be] anti-racist, by exposing the hateful and ridiculous words those Nazis are going to say,” Rapp said. “By censoring speeches, we are essentially abandoning hope for a liberal democracy.”

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