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Columbia removes ‘gratuitous suffering’ exception to free speech from resolution

But doesn’t define specifically where academic freedom applies

Columbia University’s president is a noted First Amendment scholar whose commitment to free speech for students has sometimes fallen short.

But Lee Bollinger’s efforts helped kill a giant exception to freedom of speech in a resolution on academic freedom that passed the University Senate earlier this month.

The Columbia Daily Spectator reports the original preamble in the resolution said that “one person’s freedom cannot extend to actions that bring about another person’s gratuitous suffering” – a term that it never tried to limit:

Bollinger said that the University’s devotion to free speech meant that free speech on campus cannot be limited even when it might cause hurt to others.

Bollinger said that the University essentially adopts the First Amendment, although noting the right to free speech, including speech seen as disrespectful, should not be interpreted as encouragement to be offensive. Ultimately, the Senate proposed a motion to strike the contested line from the preamble, after which the resolution was passed unanimously.

The amended resolution cites the Declaration of Independence for its meaning of “freedom,” and it doesn’t address “the right to protest on campus” because that is governed by other university entities. It emphasizes civility and respect:

Faculty and students both have the responsibility, when engaging in contentious and emotionally charged discussions, to respond critically to each other’s reasoning and challenge each other to reexamine their own beliefs, and to do so in a civil, tolerant manner with respect to the right for a person to hold ideas that differ from one’s own …

An environment of honest advocacy, openness and mutual respect is precisely what makes the essential work of education and true academic inquiry possible …

The resolution says everyone at Columbia has “the freedom to disagree with conventional wisdom,” which is what “empowers each of us to continue to question, experiment, explore and even be wrong.”

It specifies that these undertakings at the least “support” Columbia’s academic mission, and “perhaps even define” it.

The resolution is a “necessary, but not sufficient, endorsement of academic freedom” that will act as “guiding principles” rather than prescriptive rules, biology professor Robert Pollack said in presenting the resolution.

The University Senate repeatedly failed to approve an academic freedom resolution last fall in the wake of outrage against the College Republicans for inviting firebrand conservative speakers to campus.

Student representatives on the university-wide legislature didn’t like the possibility that academic freedom might extend outside classroom settings, but their own resolution that narrowly defined “academic settings” also failed.

Neither “settings” nor “space” appears in the approved resolution, saving that argument for another day.

Read the article and resolution.

MORE: Columbia faculty can’t agree ‘academic freedom’ is important

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg spent several years as a technology policy reporter and editor for Warren Communications News in Washington, D.C., and guest host on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators.” He co-founded the alternative newspaper PUNCH and served as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Falcon at Seattle Pacific University.

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