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Skidmore College

‘Vigorous civility’: Leading scholar engages Skidmore in challenges of free speech, academic freedom

March 27, 2024

At a time when civil discourse is increasingly strained and speech on many college campuses is under scrutiny, Skidmore College is making free speech and expression a top strategic priority and an essential element in strengthening its liberal arts education and community. 

As part of ongoing efforts to foster free speech on campus, the College recently welcomed one of the nation’s leading experts on free expression, Frederick M. Lawrence, to campus for a three-day residency. The March 19-21 residency included multiple workshops and talks focused on how to advance difficult conversations in a time of increased societal polarization.    

Lawrence, who is secretary and CEO of Phi Beta Kappa Society and distinguished lecturer at Georgetown University Law Center, emphasized the importance of challenging others’ ideas, rather than their motives when engaging in dialogue; disagreeing without delegitimizing them; and engaging in what Lawrence called “vigorous civility” — a committed effort to find common ground even when fundamental differences remain.  

“Particularly on issues like Israel and Gaza/Palestine, it will not be easy. But we really have no alternative. We need to have a system of free expression and need to have a system based on vigorous civility,” he said at a public talk, “Free Speech on Campus in Challenging Times,” on Wednesday, March 20. “If we can’t make it work here (on a college campus) ... then I think the experiment (in our country) in self-governing has been a failure. But if we can make it work, then we've done something important and we model something that can be done.”   

A student asks a question during Frederick Lawrence’s public talk, “Free Speech on Campus in Challenging Times.”

A student asks a question during Frederick M. Lawrence’s public talk, “Free Speech on Campus in Challenging Times.”

Lawrence, who also spoke at the College’s 112th Commencement Exercises in 2023 and received an honorary degree from Skidmore, encouraged faculty, staff, students, and College leadership not to shirk from topics just because they are contentious. 

In several wide-ranging conversations with faculty, Lawrence noted differences between freedom of speech and academic freedom. Lawrence said it was important that institutions continue to protect the boundaries of free speech or run the risk of self-censorship. 

“These principles are fundamental to an institution of higher education, and indeed to the whole concept of being a faculty member,” said President Marc Conner. “We are committed to protecting the academic freedom to inquire, explore, and teach of our faculty; and also committed to the principles of freedom of expression on our campus, within the bounds of legal and moral concerns.”

Lawrence engaged in similar discussions with student groups, including Skidmore's Student Government Association (SGA) and with students who have been actively involved in the contentious issues of the Israel-Palestine/Gaza conflict: “Certainly, our ability to talk has been challenged since Oct. 7,” Lawrence said, referring to the Hamas attacks on Israel and the subsequent war launched by Israel in Gaza.

There are no reasons we can’t engage in conversations that are difficult. 

Dean of Students and Vice President for Student Affairs Adrian Bautista helped to organize and moderate the student discussions, and expressed how proud he was of how well Skidmore’s students honestly engaged even across significantly different points of view. 

Skidmore is committed to putting these ideals and principles into practice on our campus.  

So important is the principle of speech and expression that College leadership has included the issue among its top strategic priorities for the past two academic years, and the ideas have emerged as key values of the community in the yearlong “Visions and Values” self-reflection exercise Skidmore has just conducted. 

Members of the Student Government Association (SGA), including SGA President Nathaniel Lowell '24, attend a session during Frederick Lawrence's three-day residency at Skidmore.

Members of the Student Government Association (SGA), including SGA President Nathaniel Lowell '24, attend a session during Frederick M. Lawrence's three-day residency at Skidmore.

“Freedom of expression, diversity of perspectives, openness to many points of view in our conversations and collaborations, a welcoming spirit to everyone in our community,” reads Skidmore’s Strategic Action Agenda for the current academic year. “These are essential elements not just to building the community of trust to which we aspire, but also for the liberal arts education Skidmore provides.” 

Since last fall, members of Skidmore’s faculty have organized pop-up courses and public events, including a panel discussion on the Israeli-Palestinian issue

President Conner has also joined two dozen other leaders of higher education institutions to facilitate learning and prepare students for the essential task of serving as active civic participants and engaged democratic citizens through the newly launched College Presidents for Civic Preparedness initiative. 

“Diverse opinions, perspectives, and ideas provide opportunities for us to reflect, learn, and grow individually and as an institution,” said President Conner, who organized Lawrence’s visit. “This residency continues to build on the national Speech and Expression on Campus Campuses Symposium that Skidmore hosted last year. These are fundamental principles and commitments of our entire community, and they protect all of us, particularly the least empowered. I am proud of how well SKidmore is upholding these principles in an age when so much of our society seems to be pushing against them.”  

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