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Penn State president: Free speech ‘moral’ issue even if ‘ideas are actively hateful’

‘Best way to combat bad ideas’ is ‘better ideas,’ university leader says

Penn State University President Neeli Bendapudi urged students to respect individuals’ free speech rights, including ideas that are “actively hateful,” in a Sept. 11 video kicking off the fall semester.

Addressing concerns about cancel culture and controversial speakers, Bendapudi said the right to free speech is both a “moral” and a legal issue at Penn State, a public university.

“For centuries, higher education has fought against censorship, believing that the best way to combat bad ideas with better ideas, bad speech with more speech,” she said, adding that “restricting the speech of one group or individual jeopardizes everyone’s rights.”

Bendapudi said she created the message in anticipation that controversial speakers will be invited to Penn State campuses across Pennsylvania this fall.

Already this semester, conservative speakers have been shouted down and surrounded by angry mobs at other universities. Meanwhile, last year, administrators and students at the Penn State Harrisburg campus were accused of slow-walking the approval of a conservative group’s event with Daily Wire host Michael Knowles, The College Fix reported at the time.

Bendapudi’s message avoided politics and naming names. However, she did say she believes some speakers espouse “ideas that are actively hateful,” and she believes everyone has a responsibility to reject “hateful speech.”

“I share the concerns of those who believe the messages spread by some individuals are not only offensive but deeply hurtful, and again I stand in unity with those who condemn such speakers and their rhetoric,” she said.

As a public university, however, she said Penn State must protect individuals’ First Amendment rights and distribute funding “in a manner that is viewpoint neutral” to student organizations that want to bring controversial speakers to campus.

“So what can we do about speakers who come to Penn State to anger, hurt and incite members of our community?” Bendapudi continued. “Speak out clearly and firmly against hateful speech as well as other instances of discrimination. Hurtful rhetoric causes real fear and anxiety among our community, and those individuals need your support.”

She said the university also supports students’ right to protest a speaker, but she reminded them to keep “every member of our community safe” in doing so.

Her message comes amid growing problems with cancel culture and infringements on free speech rights at higher education institutions across the U.S. In recent years, speakers have been threatened, mobbed, disrupted and shouted down, conservative student organizations have been denied approval or funding, and student clubs frequently have had displays vandalized.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression just released a new report, “2024 College Free Speech Rankings,” that rates more than 250 colleges and universities.

Penn State received a “below average” rating. Meanwhile, the report ranked Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of South Carolina, Georgetown University and Fordham University as the five worst schools for free speech.

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About the Author
Micaiah Bilger is an assistant editor at The College Fix.