Free speech: An open letter to President Trump

Dear Mr. President,

An executive order promoting free speech and the freedom of thought across all institutions of higher learning should be welcomed by all. As Boston University President Robert A. Brown put it at a recent gathering in anticipation of your executive order, what you are telling us to do is what we are already doing.

Boston University, like many of its peers, is a place where we cherish the open exchange of views and ideas. The only restriction we place on the freedom of speech is that it should not promote hatred and violence. Would you agree that this is a meaningful exception to free speech? Should we not promote what one might call “measured” speech?

Freedom of speech should not be an excuse for careless expression of views that promote goals that are contrary to the mission of higher education, a mission that is universally agreed on. That mission commits us to the promotion of excellence in teaching, research, and service, so as to promote the best in ourselves and in our students.

The university’s commitment to the pursuit of truth is the reason why we teach our students to distinguish between knowledge and rhetoric, between the search for truth and sophistry. Free speech on campus does not mean “everything goes.” It means that we need to learn how to challenge one another’s orthodoxies, and to do so respectfully, not for the sake of winning arguments or promoting political causes, but so as to arrive at a better understanding of the world we live in and of which we are a part. Freedom of thought is not an ideological orientation. It is a necessity of human survival.

Respectfully,

Michael Zank

Professor of Religion

Boston University

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