Of all the amendments made to the Constitution, the first is by far the most important. It states that "Congress shall make no law (…) abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." As a journalism student, this topic has come up in many of my classes, and it seems ridiculous to me that many people may not always exercise this right.
At a panel discussion last week, a group of five professors spoke to a small audience about their beliefs of academic freedom being a form of free speech. The consensus was that it is important that the professors on campus practice their right to free to speech in the classroom and in public, but that they should show restraint when in the public eye so others know when they are not speaking for the university.
The panel members often referred to UW-Madison professor Kevin Barrett during their presentations, citing him as a source of controversy within the UW System. Barrett, a part-time Madison professor of Islam history and culture, has been in the news lately because of some presentations he has made in which he stated the U.S. government orchestrated the 9/11 attacks and compared President Bush to Adolf Hitler.
While Barrett voices these opinions to his students twice a week in Madison, he has also managed to separate his personal life from his professional life. During his presentation, I know he will not require the audience to leave sharing his own beliefs, just as I know he will not be speaking on behalf of UW-Madison. By having Barrett come to Oshkosh this week, it gives students, faculty and members of the community a chance to hear his views on a topic that is still considered highly controversial.
What professors are interested in researching during their free time should not be a concern to the university when it does not infringe upon the education and beliefs of others. As long as Barrett, as well as other university professors, gives his own views without shooting down the ideas of others, I think he is just exercising his right to free speech. I expect Barrett will be able to defend his ideas throughout his presentation, but he should also be open to the beliefs of others on this subject, especially when his ideas will surely be doubted by some during the question-and-answer session.
Oshkosh has done a fantastic job throughout my years here to find speakers that are not only interesting to a group of college students, but to the community as well. Although some of these speakers were considered to be talking about a controversial subject – like serving in the war in Iraq or the effects of switching genders in the professional world – each has managed to open the eyes of the audience.
It is important that our university continues to give students the chance to hear and discuss alternative viewpoints with speakers like Barrett. If we are not given the chance to inform ourselves about world issues and learn the arguments of others on certain topics, we are not truly taking the time to educate ourselves during our time here. Book learning often does not get you far in life without a balance of real-life learning thrown into the mix as well.
In order for academic freedom to exist within the university system, free speech must be enforced, both for students and for faculty. I do not know any of the specifics about Barrett's presentation, and I may or may not agree with his ideas when I learn more of the facts, but it is always good to challenge our own ideas to make sure we are not being exposed to false information.
Just like the best researchers explore all ideas before coming up with a theory, journalists explore all sides of a story in order to produce factual, nonbiased journalism. It is my hope that students will attend Barrett's speech and take something away from it, whether it is a realization about the 9/11 commission or a realization that perhaps free speech is more valuable than they previously thought. Free speech is a guaranteed right we should cherish, without fearing that it might be taken away from us at any time.