The Cost of Free Speech at Furman University
One student's experience holding an unfavored viewpoint on campus
It is one thing for a university to provide a formal process for students to express controversial ideas. It is quite another to create a campus culture that embraces free speech. As a student at Furman University found, taking a pro-life stand was formally permitted, but the results were isolation and expulsion from campus life.
Here is what happened.
Late in his senior year, music major Peter Paluszak decided he was far enough along at Furman that mounting a pro-life demonstration on campus could not scuttle his graduation. He learned that his reluctance to speak up against abortion earlier, in class and with fellow students, was entirely justified. He told me, “I can’t imagine what life at Furman would have been like had I engaged in this demonstration when I was a first-, second-, or third-year student.”
In January 2023, Peter got permission from the university to engage in a pro-life demonstration, he made a set of posters and stood in total silence for two hours in front of the library.
“At first,” he told me, “most people just ignored me, but then people started making offensive comments. One student joined me for a bit and a member of the faculty joined me at some point. But mostly I was alone. But then what I was doing hit social media and a crowd gathered. They made their own posters. They were yelling and there was lots of profanity. A couple of students came and sat right in front of me, not in support, but I thought they were trying to intimidate me. That’s not permitted by Furman’s rules and the police pushed them back.
This video helps us experience a bit of what Peter experienced as the target of the F bomb and verbal abuse. I asked Peter if faculty were present in the crowd and he told me yes, but he did not hear any of them engaged in intimidating shouts.
He told me, “the culture at Furman doesn’t value open speech, it’s left leaning and doesn’t tolerate dissent.”
As hostile as the public event was for Peter, the aftermath was worse.
I wasn’t cared for afterwards. No one, save the Chaplain of the Baptist Collegiate Ministry reached out to me in support, prompted by a Baptist friend of mine. Many friends and acquaintances including a former roommate would not speak to me. No one from the faculty, except for the one faculty member who joined me in the protest, reached out or had a supportive word. I was alone on campus. My relationship with the music department changed dramatically. I had only two friends left, and the faculty essentially turned its back on me. After facing severe social stress and abandonment throughout the department and Furman Singers, I went to my choral director, Dr. Steven Gusukuma, for support. Through words that sounded somewhat kind and supportive, he told me that it was my own fault that I was getting harassed and discriminated against, and that he was not going to do anything to help me. Had it not been for my family, my faith, and my Catholic communities both on and off campus, I would have collapsed under the depression that I was in. My own university became a living nightmare, and all I could do was look on to graduation as the light at the end of the tunnel.
What Peter experienced on campus supports the findings of an independent survey of Furman’s campus culture.
According this survey by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) and College Pulse, 62% percent of students at Furman responded to the survey that they were either very or somewhat uncomfortable expressing controversial views to other students in a common space; 63% felt the same about speaking up on hot political issues in class; a whopping 77% would feel very or somewhat uncomfortable expressing an unpopular political view on a social media account tied to their name.
We see why they self-censor.
What’s more, 47% percent of students told the FIRE survey that a speaker promoting the view that abortion should be completely illegal should definitely or probably NOT be allowed to speak on campus.
The FIRE survey shows that students do believe the administration will support their right to speak freely. The administration gave Peter the space and the security to voice his opinion. But there are intolerant undercurrents on campus that the administration needs to address.
And comments submitted by Furman students to FIRE show that not everyone on campus feels berating a pro-life student is at all appropriate. See these and other comments from Furman students on political speech at the school here.
Now, go to the Furman website and it tells prospective students: “When you arrive to campus, you’ll become part of our welcoming community.” What kind of community did Peter live in after he expressed his views on abortion?
And we are also told that Furman “has made an institutional commitment to pursue community equity and campus diversity.” Does the school really mean this? Or rather, what does Furman mean by this? It certainly does not appear to mean a community committed to a diversity of thinking or ideas, which would seem to be the point of creating a university in the first place.
A course correction on campus culture needs to take place at Furman.
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