Durham County

Upcoming at Duke, a long look at what free speech means in practice

Duke University West Campus
Duke University West Campus

Duke University has risen to the challenge of difficult free-speech controversies in the past, but Provost Sally Kornbluth doesn’t take it for granted that past performance guarantees future success.

So to get ahead of any problem, the administration has scheduled a daylong forum on “speech, freedom and civility” on campus for March 1.

It will cover national campus free-speech squabbles like speaker shout-downs and “model the kind of discussion” organizers believe is the best approach to difficult issues, said law professor Joseph Blocher, co-chairman of the forum’s steering committee.

“Part of what we’re trying to do here is have the conversation before a flashpoint might occur,” Blocher said.

The “provost’s forum,” an annual event that typically focuses on different topics from year to year, actually has more to it than the March 1 talks and panel discussions that will involve such people as New York Times columnist David Brooks and University of California-Berkeley law dean Erwin Chemerinsky.

Organizers have put together four “cases studies” they’re hoping professors and students consider and discuss in class or on their own time, before March 1 and after. “We want this to be more than a single-day event,” Blocher said.

The case studies focus on potential conflicts of interest around research funding, the various protests sparked by actual or planned speaking appearances by former Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos, that complaints that faculty political opinion skews liberal, and a “safe spaces” quarrel at Yale University that prompted two professors two resign campus administrative posts.

And they pose direct what-would-you-do questions about the possibility that similar controversies might someday erupt again at Duke.

“We’re covering a lot of the waterfront in terms of what the controversial issues are on campuses right now,” Blocher said.

The study on speaker-related protests, for instance, asks people to weigh in on whether they’d follow Duke’s policy on pickets and protests if a controversial figure like white supremacist and former Duke history Ph.D. student Richard Spencer was invited to speak on campus.

More abstractly, it asks what a university should do if administrators think a speaker’s appearance could trigger violence, and how much money is appropriate to pay for security.

The study on faculty opinion, meanwhile, asks people to think about what it might mean, in practical terms, to require professors to “present balanced views in the classroom” and whether they’ve experienced changes in the classroom atmosphere at Duke in the last year.

Blocher said Duke’s “certainly had speakers that someone might regard as controversial come through campus without incident” before, an allusion among other things to last March’s appearance by political scientist Charles Murray, which came about three weeks after protesters disrupted a similar event at Middlebury College in Vermont.

Murray’s a controversial figure for having co-authored a book called “The Bell Curve” and advocacy of the idea that some ethnic groups are innately less intelligent than others.

Blocher also noted that Duke’s faced its share of major protests over the years, including two student sit-ins in the Allen Building and a 1903 battle over the academic freedom of a historian, John Spencer Bassett, who’d published an essay criticizing what he called “the contempt of the white man for the negro.” Trustees of Duke, then called Trinity College, faced public pressure to oust Bassett but ultimately turned down his offer to resign.

Duke’s move comes as campuses in the public UNC system are dealing with legislative and system mandates to punish students and faculty who “substantially interfere” with the free-speech rights of others. Those mandates do not apply to Duke, a private institution.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg