UND President Rejects Student Demands for “Zero Tolerance” Policy Towards Controversial Speech

UND presidential candidate Mark Kennedy answers questions during his interview with the State Board Higher Education on Tuesday morning at UND Gorecki Alumni Center. (Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald)

College campuses are, on the whole these days, not an entirely welcoming place when it comes to controversial speech. From comedians afraid to tell provocative jokes at college gigs to political speakers unwelcome becomes they don’t adhere to certain progressive dogmas, America’s campuses have developed a belligerent sort of opposition to diversity of thought and speech.

The academy seems to have decided that they have a right to offend, but not be offended. Which is unfortunate.

But at the University of North Dakota something just happened which is pretty remarkable. In response to clearly offensive Snapchat photos, the University of North Dakota decided to side with free speech.

In fact, university President Mark Kennedy specifically pointed out that even offensive speech is not illegal speech. In a campus email announcing that the school would be taking no administrative action against the students responsible for the photos (read it in full below) Kennedy stood on free speech rights.

Kennedy said that students wanted a “zero tolerance” policy for speech, but noted that such a policy isn’t in keeping with the 1st amendment.

As part of the conversation with student leaders, we talked about the concept of Zero Tolerance. While I appreciate the desire for such a policy, it is unachievable under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The challenge we all face is to find the balance between wanting to eliminate expressions of racism and bigotry and supporting the free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment. If we value freedom of speech, we must acknowledge that some may find the expressions of others unwelcome, painful, or even, offensive. We can, however, speak out and condemn such expressions, and we can work to create a more welcoming and inclusive environment.

Kudos to Kennedy for rejecting calls for a “zero tolerance” policy.

There is no question that the photos in question were in poor taste, but ultimately they’re just photos. Offensive, yes, but a constitutionally protected expression.

Americans spend billions each year subsidizing higher education, and American students have accumulated over $1 trillion in debt to pay their way on campus, and one of the selling points justifying all of this expense is the idea that college is a place where students will be taken out of their comfort zone. Exposed to new ideas and challenged with points of view they’re not used to.

Juvenile and offensive Snapchat photos belittling a racial minority are probably not what most of us think about when those ideals are invoked, but then again a big part of learning to live in a free and diverse society is understanding that other people have the right to say things you may find deeply offensive.

We can criticize people for saying those things. We can hope they stop saying them. But we cannot punish them simply for expressing something most of us find offensive. That’s not in keeping with the notions of liberty this country was founded upon.

Kennedy, in his deft handling of this situation, just delivered that lesson to the student body at UND.

Let’s hope they learn something.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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