One-on-one: Mel Netzhammer talks free speech

In recent weeks, the campus community has faced questions about the best ways to protect free speech while also promoting an inclusive environment for all. The conversation on campus about free speech began earlier in the year with a political talk show on KOUG Radio called The American. Recently, the VanCougar has spoken with show host Rich Wilson, as well as Bola Majekobaje from Student Diversity. Chancellor Mel Netzhammer also took the time to discuss issues of free speech and how students can ensure their right is preserved while at the same time not violating the rights of others.

Wilson started the show to have a platform for a range of issues to be discussed from a range of viewpoints. Wilson felt that his free speech rights were being violated when posters for the show were defaced and removed from public message boards and he was harassed for his opinions. Wilson brought his concerns before campus faculty, asking that the university take action to protect his fliers.

Netzhammer said that the issue has come up in the past, and is not limited to The American radio show. During Gender Neutral Bathroom Week, for instance, unknown individuals defaced and removed fliers. Netzhammer said that the issue of free speech “is not limited to one side of the political spectrum.”

Netzhammer expressed concern that the issue needs to be addressed. Washington State University Vancouver has community values, said Netzhammer, and debate can be difficult when people feel threatened. “Respect for all” is needed, said Netzhammer, for the conversation about free speech to be effective.

Students play an important role in protecting free speech through respectful discussion. Netzhammer said that having the conversation about the use of free speech on campus is “incredibly important,” as the issue is “about more than people’s feelings being hurt.” The best thing that students can do when they feel that they are being disrespected is to use their own right of free speech to address the issue. Netzhammer paraphrased former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis and said that the “remedy for bad speech is more speech.”

Student leaders can help facilitate the conversation among students about the appropriate use of free speech. Students need to be able to bridge assumptions and stereotypes and be able to express their views as well as defend them, Netzhammer said.

“We are a very complex campus that represents a whole range of views,” said Netzhammer, adding that students need to have opportunities for discussion of differing opinions. The context of a diverse community needs to be used to frame the discussion of free speech.

Netzhammer said that it becomes a concern if students do not want to discuss important issues on campus. However, the fact that faculty and students have raised concerns over expression of free speech is taken very seriously and extremely important. “We need to be vigilant,” Netzhammer said, so that free speech is neither abused nor taken for granted.

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  1. Aaron Birch says:

    While I get the message, I find it odd that an educative establishment would allow this free ‘speech’ to be tolerated. It’s one thing to have opposing mentalities and rhetoric to debate on, but to host a potentially xenophobic, racist and sexist platform to exist in such a diverse audience of an academic environment baffles me.

  2. Alex, I’m disappointed. I thought you understood this better. Your very first sentence is everything that is wrong on our campus. Your opening line implies hay somehow by having free speech it diminishes “inclusivity”. It’s apparent all on campus have forgotten that their would be no such thing as “inclusivity” if it were not for freedom of speech in the first place. How is that you, and so many others on college campuses can make a blanket statement about “an inclusive environment for all” yet separate and demonize intellectual diversity, that is free speech. Why are differing viewpoints not equally viewed in diversity? I thought it was all about “equality”? Disappointing. You had a real opportunity to stand out from the rest of the sheep. You had a chance to really dig down to the foundation and make an impactful piece. You failed with this one, and worse of all, your own words prove the point of how free speech is viewed on college campuses.