Losing Not Just At Football, But Also At Free Speech

I watched Michigan State’s Felton Davis catch the winning touchdown pass from a hotel room in Baltimore. Needless to say, I didn’t attend that crushing game. I was also absent from the stands during our heartbreaking loss to Ohio State. I’ve often felt like I engaged with football in this way: indirectly through a screen or as a footnote in my life.

My two brothers, one older and one younger, would talk about football growing up. Sitting in the car with them, I would passively try to make funny jokes to stay engaged with the conversation on whom to pick in their fantasy league. I gained a wealth of knowledge about football, nothing that I needed or planned to use. Neither one of my parents went to Penn State, and I’ve never heard my family discuss college football. I still follow Penn State and watch most of the games. I want my fellow students to do well. I want them to succeed at something in which they put so much time. I want Penn State to win.

Most people at Penn State care about football a lot more than I do. They should care about free speech, too.

In October of 2015, Michigan State beat us at free speech. They adopted the Chicago Statement—a rigorous celebration of the civil and academic benefits of free speech based on a report released by the University of Chicago’s Committee on Free Expression. Michigan State became the seventh university nationwide to adopt the statement and the second in the Big Ten. The next month, Michigan State beat us at football, a 55 – 16 loss in East Lansing.

Since Michigan State’s adoption of the Chicago Statement, 44 other universities have followed suit. The 51 universities who have adopted the Chicago Statement, or something substantially similar, share very little. Some are public, and others are private. University systems, as well as small regional colleges, have passed it. Enrollment numbers range from fewer than than 2,000 to more than 64,000. Six of Penn State’s peer institutions have adopted the Chicago Statement.

Why not Penn State?

In 2017,  President Eric Barron alluded to Penn State’s commitment on free speech, stating that “Penn State is an institution of higher education, and fully supports the right of free speech and encourages its expression in thoughtful and respectful ways, even when we strongly disagree with the opinions expressed.”

Penn State needs more.

In two policies that regulate speech, Policy AD85 and Policy AD91, the university expresses that it “is committed to its long-standing tradition of academic freedom and free expression. The university is an institution whose members may express themselves, while protecting and respecting the rights of others to learn, to do research, and to carry out the essential functions of the University free from interference or obstruction.”

Penn State needs more.

Penn State needs an independent statement that guarantees “all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn,” as the Chicago Statement does.

Penn State needs to make clear that “it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive,” as the Chicago Statement does.

Penn State needs to acknowledge its power to “restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of Penn State,” as the Chicago Statement does.

Penn State needs to remember that the aforementioned regulations “are narrow exceptions to the general principle of freedom of expression, and it is vitally important that these exceptions should never be used in a manner that is inconsistent with [Penn State’s] commitment to a completely free and open discussion of ideas,” as the Chicago Statement does.

Penn State needs to celebrate that a commitment to free speech and expression ensure that students and professors learn and teach to the best of their abilities, as the Chicago Statement does.

Penn State needs to adopt the Chicago Statement.

This upcoming Saturday, I’ll watch Penn State take on Wisconsin at noon. I’ll hope that we don’t lose to them at football, but I’ll know that we already lost to them at free speech.

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