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EDITORIAL: Controversial ideas should be discussed in universities, not censored

A book in Princeton University's curriculum sparked controversy as Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-5) called it antisemitic

While many works of literature explored in college can be controversial and radical, banning them from academia and campus spaces is not the right answer.  – Photo by Olga Tutunaru / Unsplash

In the first six months of the 2022-2023 academic year, book bans in U.S. public schools skyrocketed by 28 percent, with many targeting literature discussing LGBTQ+ topics.

Many of these debates focus on how much parents should be able to control what their children are exposed to at K-12 schools. But does censorship have a role at the college level?

Just last Wednesday, Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber defended the inclusion of a book on a course syllabus after Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-5) condemned it as antisemitic with the capability to "incite(s) violence."

The book, titled "The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability," was written by Jasbir K. Puar, a professor in the Department of Women and Gender Studies at Rutgers.

Gottheimer has a strong ethical issue with how Puar portrays Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which continues to be a complicated and sensitive issue that many are hesitant to comment on.

While book bans in U.S. public high schools seem to focus on the question of parental sovereignty, the pushback against Puar's book seems to be about determining whether the literature is hateful and if it contains enough academic merit to cause more good than harm.

There are important arguments to consider when something may simply be more harmful than educational. For example, during the wake of George Floyd's death, there were calls to stop broadcasting the murders of Black people at the hands of police due to the traumatic nature of such events.

Or, even before this, book publishers started to remove the N-word from Mark Twain's classic "Huckleberry Finn." The book references the slur more than 200 times, which, to some, gets "in the way of the story's powerful message."

In this case, people had to consider where the academic merit was in reading a slur more than 200 times. Does it help readers learn or cause them more harm?

While it is undeniable that topics concerning any sort of violence, genocide, racism and war are extremely upsetting and uncomfortable to unpack, the most appropriate place to conduct this sort of discussion is in a classroom environment, under the guidance of a scholar.

While some may argue that high school students may not be ready to engage with certain topics, college students should definitely do so.

It is important to keep in mind that certain ideas will certainly offend people and be difficult to stomach, but banning them altogether would have more dangerous implications.

For instance, in October 2021, Rutgers hosted Gov. Phil Murphy (D-N.J.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt), both of whom could be described as Liberal — particularly Sanders, who has notoriously been labeled as a "communist" by many Conservatives.

Would it be right for Rutgers to prevent Sanders from speaking because he might spread socialist ideas like free college that some may find harmful? No.

In March 2023, Rutgers allowed the University's chapter of Turning Point USA, a Conservative student organization, to host Candace Owens, a polarizing figure on the Right, as a speaker.

At the end of the event, Owens held a Q&A session, in which a member of the audience stated that they were a transgender man and inquired Owens about her views of "transgenderism."

Owens responded, "I respect you for being here, and I'm really grateful for you being here. You cannot change your gender. You can change your appearance. At the end of the day, women give birth. Men don't. Women have ovaries. Men don't."

From one perspective, Owens is dangerously denying the audience member's identity. But, on the other hand, would it be right for Rutgers to allow Bernie Sanders to come for a political event and not Owens?

While it would not be wise for, say, Owens to be spreading these views to young children, Rutgers is a university for adults who can form opinions on their own.

Additionally, it would be nearly impossible to determine who and what should be banned on campus. What political leaders should be allowed on campus? Do universities have the right to ban literature discussing sexuality? Do universities have the right to ban literature with a pro-Israel or pro-Palestine stance?

What may be more useful for universities to implement, instead of jumping to censorship, is the inclusion of proper disclaimers before students take a course or attend an event.

And while universities should encourage free speech, it is important that any claims of misinformation be taken seriously. People are entitled to their opinions, and that should not be silenced, but spreading misinformation is a different story.

Still, note that just because someone has a different opinion than you, it does not mean that it is automatically misinformation.

Controversial ideas should be discussed, analyzed and criticized, not banned or taken as law. While many controversial ideas teeter on the line between uncomfortable and hateful, it is important to keep in mind that any form of censorship is a dangerous road to go down.

The Daily Targum's editorials represent the views of the majority of the 155th editorial board. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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