Expert addresses free speech on college campuses

Manuel Gomez visited Elon University on Oct. 1, 2013, for a program sponsored by the Center for the Advancement of Teaching & Learning and the Better Together Living Learning Community.

American universities must continue to ensure that all ideas can be heard on their campuses and that people feel safe expressing views regardless of their popularity, according to a veteran college administrator who visited Elon University this week for a discussion on free speech and academic freedom.

Manuel Gomez, vice chancellor of student affairs emeritus at the University of California, Irvine, spoke Tuesday to professors, students and staff in the McBride Gathering Space of the Numen Lumen Pavilion. The talk was sponsored by the Center for the Advancement of Teaching & Learning and the Better Together Living Learning Community.

Gomez’s scholarly activity and his leadership at UCI have focused on questions related to free speech and critical thinking, and he summarized the theme of his talk by quoting Clark Kerr, a former president of the University of California: “The university is not engaged in making ideas safe for students. It is engaged in making students safe for ideas.”

Gomez used his time to trace the history of the First Amendment and argued that college campuses, more so than other institutions in the nation, facilitate the “marketplace of ideas” concept developed by philosopher John Stuart Mill and cited in U.S. Supreme Court decisions affecting freedom of speech.

It’s in the marketplace where the truth and resiliency of an idea can be tested, he said. Stifling speech, especially ideas that are in the minority, hampers that ability. And when you prohibit the examination of ideas on a campus, you hold back students’ ability to investigate, analyze and interpret new concepts.

Gomez said the ideal forum for information and opinions to circulate is one in which they will be subjected not only to contentious debate, uncomfortable discussion and difficult dialogues, but also to reasoned investigation and rigorous truth-testing.

“The university is not a perfect place,” he said. “Like all of our society, it is a work in progress and hopefully we are making progress to the ‘marketplace of ideas’ that inspired John Stuart Mill and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.”

Gomez also cautioned his audience not to assume it knows the only “true” answer to particular issues or controversies.

“Who among us does not believe in the righteousness of those ideas we hold to be superior or so completely true that we can not imagine their defeat?” he said. “Any idea … can become dangerous when taken to a point beyond skepticism, or viewed as the only ‘Truth’ with a capital ‘T.’”

Gomez’s UC Irvine biography notes that he started in 1973 as a counselor before moving to direct the campus’s Educational Opportunity Program. He also served as assistant and associate vice chancellor of enrollment services and vice chancellor of student affairs.

He has consulted for the U.S. Department of Education, worked as a program officer with the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, advised the California Postsecondary Education Commission, and he has also served as interim vice president for educational outreach for the UC Office of the President.

Gomez received his doctorate in higher education policy and organization from USC. He earned his bachelor’s degree in history from CSU, Hayward, and a master’s degree in social ecology from UC Irvine.