Amid tensions of the recent election cycle and questionable actions of the new United States president, a welling consensus emerges that the substantive engagement of ideas is under attack on university campuses throughout the nation. Are the values of free speech and free thought still advocated on higher education campuses in our country?
The question was addressed as the student group Freethinkers of PSU, in conjunction with the Center for Inquiry Portland, hosted an evening of dialogue and critical thought on Jan. 27 in Portland State’s Hoffmann Hall. The presentation titled “The New Campus Thought Police” promised audience members frank discussion regarding the challenges of free speech and free thought in an era of political correctness gone awry.
Controversy accompanied anticipation of the event, as the slate of scheduled speakers included PSU philosophy professor Peter Boghossian, American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Christina Hoff Sommers, and political talk show host Dave Rubin. Each of the speakers have faced scrutiny for their polemic positions on hotly-contested issues within the current political climate.
“We cannot allow civil society to fall to the idea that if somebody holds a belief that’s offensive, that we have to punch them,” Boghossian said, in reference to the recent assault on white nationalist* figure Richard Spencer by an inauguration protester on live TV. “But even more than that, that doesn’t give those people the chance to revise their beliefs.”
According to the Freethinkers of PSU/CFI Facebook post description of the event, the topics of interest were to include “honest and unfiltered conversation about the controversial subjects of free speech and political correctness on college campuses. This will include issues such as microaggressions, trigger warnings, safe spaces, cultural appropriation, victimhood culture, and more.”
Video report by Emma Josephson/PSU Vanguard
The speakers delivered on their promise of fecund dialogue, as Boghossian, Sommers and Rubin spoke for about 45 minutes, exchanging banter and anecdotal conjecture on the fragile zeitgeist of critical thought among university campuses nationwide.
Hoff Sommers, often contended for her outspoken views on radical feminism, concurred with Boghossian’s sentiment concerning the free and open exchange of differing opinions.
“It’s time for a sensible, civil majority,” Hoff Sommers said. “Forget your identity. Transcend your identity to commit to higher purposes.”
“If the people in your movement are suffering from a lack of kindness and compassion, it’s probably not a good movement,” Boghossian added.
Rubin coupled the jeopardy of free speech on college campuses with its potential to leave graduates unprepared for critical discourse in the professional world.
“It seems like a great setup,” Rubin said. “It’s a setup of taking young minds, protecting them from other ideas and then you put them in the real world where those things don’t exist. And then it’s very easy to manipulate people who have been protected from certain ideas.”
According to Boghossian, refusing to consider and contemplate others’ viewpoints can also lead to the entrenchment of those viewpoints.
“You don’t teach somebody a lesson by beating them,” Boghossian added. “That only reinforces the beliefs they already have.”
The opening of the Q&A segment of the night was met with enthusiasm, as those in agreement with and opposition to the views of the speakers took turns at the mic, furthering the analysis and exchange of wide-ranging sentiments.
“I just feel it’s important to entertain various points of view and at least be open to discussing certain topics, even if you might disagree with the speaker,” said PSU English major Josh Green. “I feel like compromise is based on communication, so people with different points of view need to at least let the voice of the other group be heard, whether you find common ground or not. I feel that’s the starting point for progress.”
Hoffmann Hall housed the standing-room-only attendance for the event with an audience visibly attentive and contemplative.
PSU graduate student Josue Rodriguez plans to teach social studies professionally and found the fuss surrounding freedom of speech and the exchange of differing opinions relevant to inspiring critical thought in his future classroom.
“I’m here to hear a broader range of discussion on these issues, even if I don’t agree with everything they say,” Rodriguez said. “Hopefully we can have a civil discussion about these complicated issues where people have a variety of opinions without people silencing the discussion.”
Guyar Vial of PSU student group Turning Point USA commented on what he views as a hostile environment on campus regarding opposing viewpoints:
“I find it quite ironic that there are multiple Facebook groups dedicated to disrupting this tonight, which only proves its point,” Vial said. “I think it’s absolutely ludicrous the amount of leftist doublethink here on campus. In every single one of my classes, if I espouse anything other than a leftist viewpoint I am immediately shouted down by the entire class and often times professors.”
The event was at some point faced with contention, as local Facebook group Rose City Antifa had posted a call to action among interested protesters to disrupt and shut down the presentation. A message posted on the group’s Facebook page on Jan. 27 read, in part, as follows (represented as written):
“While the PSU Free thinker’s certainly claims to be a secular humanist group fighting for free speech; the decision to host an event mocking the need for safe spaces when women, LGBTQ people, and POC are watching their basic rights evaporate by the hour under the Trump regime shows that in fact this group has a reactionary agenda. Depite the fantasy of white male victimhood at the hands of the ‘PC Police’, the actual power dynamics in our society are exactly the opposite.”
The post also called for activists to contact various university officials via phone or written correspondence and offered a scripted letter for protesters intent on shutting the event down. Unconfirmed reports of threats made to event organizers included plans to physically disrupt the scheduled lecture.
Rose City Antifa posted a statement allegedly received from the chair of the PSU Philosophy department stating the Philosophy department did not support the talk but could do nothing to stop it. Noah Sharpsteen, adjunct professor and department office manager, later confirmed that no such statement had been made.
However, the day of the event, a post on the group’s Facebook page declared a reversal of planned interference and there was no known presence of Rose City Antifa at the speaking engagement. No representatives of Rose City Antifa could be reached for comment at the time of the writing of this article.
Although PSU Freethinkers’ discussion “The New Campus Thought Police” was presented without interruption and those in attendance remained civil, just five days later the campus of UC Berkeley erupted in violent protest over the scheduled appearance of notorious Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, even after the event was cancelled and protesters achieved their objective.
*Editor’s Note: The original text of this article described Richard Spencer as an alt-right figure; the text has been changed to more accurately reflect the subject’s character.