As college kicks off across the United States, students at the Mizzou, Oregon State University, Virginia Tech, the University of Wisconsin Madison and other universities sat through diversity and sensitivity training.
Purdue took a wholly different approach. On Aug. 17, its student orientation included a full session on free speech and academic freedom.
That training included a panel on free speech, moderated by the university’s legal counsel, discussing examples of controversial but protected speech. Purdue also played videos of past speakers and public figures, emphasizing “the value and importance of robust speech and debate on campus.”
Purdue has emerged as a free-speech leader in recent years, becoming the first public university in the U.S. to adopt the so-called “Chicago principles” on speech in May 2015.
In doing so, Purdue guaranteed that those on its campus will enjoy “the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn.” It also unequivocally declared that “it is not the proper role of the University to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”
Those free-speech principles were put to the test last academic year, according to more than 100 pages of public records reviewed exclusively by Heat Street.
Purdue allows students and non-students alike to gather without permission at high-visibility locations on campus and to express their ideas and opinions. Last academic year, several protestors took advantage of this opportunity, including anti-abortion demonstrators, who used provocative and graphic images, and name-calling religious activists.
Several students were offended by the demonstrations and filed bias reports with the administration, calling for Purdue to ban the displays and kick the activists off campus.
One student described anti-abortion protestors’ posters, saying they constituted bias against different gender identities, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic classes.
“There’s a significant amount of blood and gore, the purpose of which is to shame and intimidate women who have opted for abortion and to scare and discourage women seeking help. … The display should be removed immediately to protect Purdue students from undue distress,” wrote the student, whose name was redacted.
Marlo David, a professor who teaches classes on literature, African-American studies and women’s gender and sexuality, wrote that the displays also included “25-foot displays that can be seen from all directions with images of swastikas, a confederate flag, lynchings of black people, police brutality against black people, and dead bodies attributed to genocide in Cambodia.”
Another student complained that the demonstrators equated women who had abortions to Nazis and members of the KKK.
David said that the protestors should be required to remove any posters that constituted “hate speech.” She wrote: “They have a right to share their ideas, but should not be allowed to intimidate and bully members of this community who are sensitive to images of racial history.”
Students also filed complaints about extremist religious activists.
One student wrote in about “multiple ‘Christian’ speakers [who] have verbally harassed students, specifically sexual minorities and women on campus, have called them ‘fags,’ ‘sodomites,’ ‘whores,’ ‘sluts,’ and so on.”
The student, whose name was redacted, continued: “This is not free speech. This is hate speech. Do something for once. Words have consequences and the failure of the administration to make this campus a safe space is embarrassing.”
But even amid pressure from students and faculty, Purdue stuck to its commitment to protect free speech — including offensive speech.
“It is not surprising there are times when our students are challenged or even offended by what they encounter with a speaker or visitor — that is part of their education as a young adult,” says Purdue’s associate dean of students, Jeffrey Stefancic.
When Purdue students contact administrators about speech and demonstrations they find upsetting, the university connects them with campus cultural centers, university religious leaders or counseling, Stefancic says.
“In addition, we work with students to empower them on how to engage in proactive dialogue and debate on issues while striving to maintain an atmosphere of civility and mutual respect,” he says.
Purdue contrasts sharply with other universities in its approach to controversial speech on campus.
Last week, a Clemson administrator was caught on video kicking a local man off campus; he had been sitting quietly beside a sign inviting students to pray, and he did so outside of so-called “designated free speech areas,” the administrator said.
Last academic year also saw a series of universities seeking to avoid uproar by disinviting speakers deemed too controversial, ranging from Jason Riley at Virginia Tech to Ben Shapiro at Cal State LA to Milo Yiannopoulus at DePaul.
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.