Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, based in Philadelphia, presented the case that academics are often wrongly and severely punished for legally and justifiably speaking out.
"There is a problem in the university system with the tolerance for actual dissent," Lukianoff said.
Howard Schweber, a UW political science professor, argued that 90 percent of the time, students and professors are only indulging in their right to act like "idiots," and as a result, unprofessional behavior occurs.
In a study that examined 334 universities to see how unconstrained students were to speak their ideas freely, Lukianoff said 229 received a red light rating, meaning that they were "laughably unconstitutional." In the same study, only eight universities received a green light rating, criteria that all universities should currently be following, he said.
Lukianoff pointed to numerous examples, such as Davidson College in North Carolina, which prohibits speech about dating, and Jacksonville State University, where students could be punished if they offend anyone on university property.
In one instance, Lukianoff said he defended a student who posted a flier near an elevator stating that women gain 15 pounds their first year in college, "and there is something you can do about it: Take the stairs."
"He was found guilty of harassment, violating the affirmative action policy, disorderly conduct — and none of these makes any sense," Lukianoff said. "He was kicked out of his dorm, had to live in his car for two weeks, … [get] mandatory psychological counseling, and [write] a 3,000-word essay. And this is after he apologized like he committed a war crime."
Schweber said that in very few cases are students and professors wrongly punished, and in turn most use free speech as an excuse to get away with behavior they normally would not be able to.
"Academic freedom is not quite the same thing as the self-indulgent notion that everyone who wants to can say whatever they want and that being obnoxious is somehow a guaranteed right," Schweber said.
According to Schweber, universities need to watch out for, and punish, inexcusable and ignorant behavior that does not try to further learning and research. Schweber gave an example of fraternity members who held up signs rating women as they walked down the street.
"This freedom should not be used as an excuse so [that] we get to be rude and insulting and ignorant," Schweber said. "In the real world, no one would get away with this nonsense."
On most issues, both speakers said they agreed with what their opponent was saying. The speakers said they disagreed, though, on how many cases of free speech were a result of overly strict university ruling or if they were just indulging in their right to act insolent.
"What was great about this debate is that you were able to see both sides presented," UW law student Diana Fakhrai said. "At times they were obviously on the same page, and even when there was disagreement, they presented their sides respectfully."
* A typographical error in the original copy that printed April 12, 2007, was corrected. Fakhrai said “respectfully,” not “respectively.”