Letter to the Editor: Self-Censorship on Campus?

by jmccoy3 on April 21, 2022

Letters to the Editor

Do you sometimes feel reluctant to voice your ideas—either in class or among your peers? Maybe you suspect that your professor will only accept certain viewpoints, and that speaking your mind could negatively affect your grade. Maybe you worry that people will shun you for not expressing the “right” opinions.

Most everyone agrees that listening to different viewpoints is a good thing—and that critical questioning and debate are key parts of a robust education. And most people would say they are against “cancel culture” (if we could agree on what it is and to what extent it’s real). But when a University of Virginia undergrad wrote a New York Times op-ed lamenting the self-censorship she’s found on campus, it set off a firestorm of angry online attacks. As political theorist Teresa Bejan admits, disagreement is, well . . . disagreeable. So it’s tempting to shut down the a-holes who disagree with us, and it’s tempting to keep silent rather than deal with disagreement.

We must resist these temptations.

America’s founders viewed freedom of speech as the absolute bedrock of a free society. Free speech holds governments accountable, and tends to combat ignorance and groupthink. We see the converse clearly today: wWhen Russia launched a cruel and catastrophic war on its neighbor Ukraine, it promptly clamped down on any protest and publication of critical information. And as China prosecutes disastrous lockdowns on its citizens in Shanghai, censors scrub social media 24/7 of dissent.

As a student at Providence College, being educated in the Dominican tradition of disputation, you have the opportunity to cultivate the habits of critical truth-seeking, open discussion, and debate that prepare you for life as a citizen of a free society.

We want to hear from you . . . and hear what you think would help PC promote a culture of free exchange and lively debate. In fact, the Frederick Douglass Project at PC has cooked up an essay and public speaking contest just for you.

I know what you’re thinking. “Dr. Bernhoft, I have enough essays to write and presentations to give as it is! You’d have to pay me to write one voluntarily.”

Interesting point. OK. Here’s the deal: Because we want you to think (and speak!) critically about free expression and self-censorship on campus, we’re putting $1600 in prize money into this contest. $500 for first place, $200 for second place, $100 for third place—for both the written op-ed and the recorded speech. (And yes, you can enter both contests.) Full guidelines can be found online, and the deadline for entries is Friday, April 29.

Winners will be announced at an event the Douglass Project is hosting on Thursday, May 5 at 4 p.m. in the Aquinas Lounge. Our speaker will be Alex Morey, an attorney and journalist who directs the Individual Rights Defense Program for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Alex will be speaking about her work defending students and faculty of all political and ideological persuasions who face civil liberties threats on campuses—and what you can do as students to promote a culture of free expression on campus today.

TL;DR: The free exchange of ideas is fundamentally important to a free and educated society. So self-censorship on campus is a big problem. What can we do to promote it? Make your case in the Frederick Douglass Essay & Public Speaking Contest for the chance to win up to $1000 in prize money. Deadline 4/29. Contact Dr. Bernhoft (ibernhof@providence.edu) with any questions, and come to our end-of-year event with Alex Morey on May 5!