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We have read with interest the differing perspectives published in The Cavalier Daily and elsewhere regarding the forthcoming visit of former vice president Mike Pence to Grounds. We have also heard the concerns from people inside and outside of our community who believe that the discussion happening about whether Mr. Pence should speak at the University is proof of a hostility toward free expression and ideological diversity on Grounds.
We should all be proud that this University is a place where students have the courage and the platform to raise perspectives about events like these — regardless of their popularity among their peers or with prominent figures from outside of this community. The exchange of ideas about Mr. Pence’s presence on Grounds is not a sign that free expression is dead on Grounds — it’s a sign that it is alive and well. Indeed, as paradoxical as it might seem, the protection of free speech has to allow room for those who want to argue against the idea or in favor of constraints on speech — otherwise, we would be protecting speech by way of censorship.
We recognize the concern that The Cavalier Daily’s Editorial Board raises about the real impact speech can have on people’s lives. Too often, our arguments about freedom of expression overlook the truth that some forms of speech and some ideas can lead to harmful results if they are left unchecked and unchallenged.
However, that is not an argument to annul or prohibit protected speech. As stated in the free speech statement recently endorsed by the Board of Visitors — “all views, beliefs, and perspectives deserve to be articulated and heard, free from interference. This commitment underpins every part of the University’s mission.”
As the statement explains, this is not because “every idea is equally good.” Instead, it “reflects the view that every idea must be heard so that it may be subjected to the rigorous scrutiny necessary to advance knowledge.” This includes, it should be noted, ensuring that the University protect the right to articulate, hear and debate ideas that some might label “inherently divisive,” whatever that might mean.
One of our tasks as a university is to give our students the tools to evaluate these ideas, alongside many others, and decide for themselves, as active members of our democracy, which ideas they support and which they oppose. As Clark Kerr, the renowned former president of the University of California, once wrote, our task is not to make ideas safe for students, but to make students safe for ideas.
Where we can be different as a university — and where we should strive to be different — is in the approach we take to these discussions. While social media trolls and pundits often attack the motives and the character of those with whom they disagree, we can and should listen and learn from those differences and use them to make our own ideas and arguments better. As we explain more fully in an essay, we can and should strive to be both empathetic speakers and generous listeners.
Mr. Pence’s visit — like that of every other prominent speaker or professor who visits Grounds — is an opportunity to listen and grow in our understanding of a particular perspective on the future of our nation and our world. It is also an opportunity to make a case against that vision. In a community as diverse and thoughtful as ours, sometimes the most important work of education happens not in the classroom, but in the vigorous, messy and sometimes heated discussions that take place between empathetic speakers and generous listeners tackling important questions. Long may those discussions continue.