Viewpoints

Protecting free speech at Cal Poly is an obligation, not an option

Milo Yiannopoulos speaks on campus in the Mathematics building at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colo., Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017. Yiannopoulos will be speaking at Cal Poly on Jan. 31.
Milo Yiannopoulos speaks on campus in the Mathematics building at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colo., Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017. Yiannopoulos will be speaking at Cal Poly on Jan. 31. Daily Camera via The Associated Press

Many of you have raised concerns about Milo Yiannopoulos, a guest speaker invited by the Cal Poly College Republicans club to present at Cal Poly on Jan. 31.

Several individuals who find Mr. Yiannopoulos’ comments offensive have contacted the university and demanded that he not be permitted to speak. To be clear, it is not the role of a public institution such as ours to endorse any position or decide who should or should not be allowed to appear on campus. Indeed, numerous guest speakers considered by many to be controversial or offensive have presented at our university throughout its history.

Public universities such as Cal Poly represent communities where the free exchange of opposing ideas is both encouraged and necessary. It is, in fact, the university’s responsibility to support the rights of all people to express their opinions and ideas — regardless of how unpopular they may be — while also encouraging students to think critically and independently. It is only in this environment that students hone the ability to consider a spectrum of information and reach informed and intelligent conclusions.

»» Related Viewpoint: Protests aimed at shutting down Milo Yiannopoulos only make him stronger

A recent example that illustrates this point is occurring on campus now. A number of fliers were posted on campus bulletin boards that include hateful and divisive language. I, along with many others, find these postings vile and disgusting, and I stand squarely with those who have been hurt by the content. However, as a free speech campus, postings with potentially offensive content are permitted in assigned locations according to university policy (CAP 144.5-144.7).

As a public campus that upholds free speech, we cannot prevent our campus community from being exposed to these messages. However, we trust that our students, faculty and staff who are offended by the fliers will recommit themselves to supporting a welcoming and inclusive environment where a variety of perspectives and cultures are embraced, respected and celebrated.

The real danger is not the expression of controversial voices — it is censorship and the restriction of free speech. Freedom of speech is a foundational tenet of higher education and a functional democracy. It does not allow for the suppression of viewpoints based upon popularity or individual perspectives. Rather, open expression of a diversity of ideas and opinions — including those we may not agree with — ensures rich discussion, debate and critical thought.

If we refuse to uphold the free-speech rights of those whose views differ from our own, who can we rely upon to protect our voice and ensure it is not silenced? Protecting freedom of speech is not an option; it is a critical responsibility that the university, and all of us as members of a democratic society, must defend.

Jeffrey D. Armstrong is president of Cal Poly.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune

  Comments