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Loretta A. Preska, chief judge of the U.S. District Court of Southern New York, said she was concerned about reduced tolerance of free speech on university campuses in a lecture at Harvard Law School on Monday.
While Preska argued that there is widespread “decreasing tolerance for truly free expression and open debate,” she claimed that the issue is particularly problematic in educational settings.
“The limiting of public discourse is already occurring, and in my view, the most troublesome of those places is the place where the views of the future leaders of our country are formed: on university campuses,” Preska said.
Preska cited the establishment of “free speech zones,” or zones specifically set aside for protest, as an example of curtailed free speech on college campuses.
“A campus with a so-called free speech zone is one in which free speech is allowed in certain designated areas, but not any place else,” Preska said, adding that “these zones allow administrators to banish protesters to remote or marginal parts of the campus.”
Some colleges have also placed inappropriate restrictions on speech to prevent cyberbullying, according to Preska.
“The University of West Alabama has enacted a ban on cyberbullying, which it describes as ‘harsh text messages or emails.’ Colorado State University in Pueblo now defines harassment as anything that causes 'psychological and or emotional harm on any member of the university community,'” Preska said.
She said these policies, although noble in their intentions, are overbroad in their scope.
Using these examples, Preska emphasized that “speech should not be censored based on viewpoint, offensiveness, or anything else” because banning statements that are unpopular or not of the majority opinion undermines values promulgated by the Constitution.
“Not only was freedom of speech the progressive ideal on which our nation was founded, it remains something that distinguishes this nation from every other nation on the planet,” Preska said.
Some students also recognized that there are social pressures to sympathize with the most popular opinions.
“I think institutionally, Harvard does a really good job of maintaining free speech,” Hussein E. Elbakri, a student at the Law School, said. “But I think the social pressure not to say certain things, especially in discussions that affect race and gender, has been pretty prevalent in my classes.”
Trenton J. Van Oss, a Law School student who coordinated the event, said he was moved by the discussion. Van Oss is a member of the Federalist Society, a group of conservative, moderate, and libertarian Law School students, which sponsored the lecture.
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