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Baker Report: Reaffirming our commitment to free speech

October 7, 2016

One of our most cherished rights as Americans is our freedom of speech.

Millions of brave men and women have fought and died for our right to speak, write and otherwise express our opinions without fear of censorship or punishment. The freedom of expression policy recently enacted here at Northern Illinois University reaffirms and celebrates our commitment to that principle. After all, meaningful dialogue and a respectful exchange of ideas and opinions are the bedrock on which every public university is built.

It is an awesome right, but with it comes great responsibility. As such, I urge everyone to closely review the policy.

In summary, it makes clear that the entirety of public space on our campus (outdoor areas), plus the Board of Trustees room in Altgeld Hall, are free speech zones where students, faculty, staff and visitors are free to express their views. It also reaffirms that the university will not interfere with the expression of opinions based upon the content of the message being conveyed. We realize that this means individuals might express points and counterpoints that run contrary to our own values of civility, collegiality, diversity and inclusiveness. However, the First Amendment protects virtually all speech, no matter how unorthodox, offensive or distasteful.

As a result, we may occasionally be pushed outside of our comfort zones and forced to confront views and ideas with which we disagree. However, that is a small price to pay to preserve an environment in which differences can be explored, ideas challenged and society advanced. Encouraging and supporting the free exchange of all ideas on campus enhances the education of our students. It provides opportunities to practice forming coherent arguments and to hone communication skills. It also compels individuals to listen to, examine and respond to a diversity of opinions. Ultimately, it better equips our students to succeed after graduation and makes all of us better informed citizens ready to engage in the improvement of society.

This new policy does not mean that public speech on campus can be exercised recklessly. For instance, freedom of speech does not guarantee a right to be obscene, pick fights, incite violence or defame others. The law of the land also allows for prohibitions against damaging property or endangering the public. Those same rules apply on campus.

Similarly, it is important to note that this new policy does not change the rules regarding classroom decorum. As has always been the case, faculty retain the right to shape the discourse that takes place within their classrooms.

The complete policy, and an outline of related procedures, as well as answers to common questions can be found on the website of NIU’s office of Student Involvement and Leadership Development.

At its heart, this policy speaks to our core values. By creating an environment where freedom of speech is not only respected but encouraged, I firmly believe we help our students become better members of society and prepare them for success in life.

Together Forward,