‘What Snowflakes Get Right’

Author discusses his book that seeks a new framework for the debate about free speech on campus.

October 11, 2019

Ulrich Baer wants to shake up the campus debates on free speech. In What Snowflakes Get Right: Free Speech, Truth and Equality on Campus (Oxford University Press), Baer argues that free speech can't be separated, as many try to, from issues of equity. He praises the "snowflakes" as a source of valuable ideas. And he writes that free speech is given too dominant a role in campus debate today.

Baer, a professor of comparative literature, German and English at New York University, responded via email to questions about his book.

Q: What's wrong with the way the free speech debate is understood on campus?

A: The free speech debates on campus have been framed incorrectly as a conflict between free speech and offended feelings of coddled, oversensitive students. The issue is that free speech only has meaning in the university when it's paired with the legally mandated principle of equality for all qualified participants: equality of participation and opportunity. So when a speaker proposes that some people are innately inferior, such speech conflicts directly with the university's mandate to provide equal access to its facilities and resources. Free speech, moreover, is neither a blanket permission to say anything without consequence (our courts regulate many types of speech, from child pornography to libel, incitement and false information in legal contracts, advertising etc.) nor identical with academic freedom.

Q: You write that the urge to block speech is not related to political correctness. What does it reflect?

A: The urge to block speech, which is really a reminder that the university's purpose is to vet ideas and regulate speech so that teaching and learning can proceed, is related to a new generation's realization that free speech has become a weapon for conservatives to undermine equality and the university itself. It reflects a new generation's awareness that free speech can serve as a hollow concept to advance a reactionary agenda rather than set all of us free.

Q: If, as you write, universities' role is to vet ideas, how do unpopular but perhaps worthy ideas get the time to grow and build support?

A: Vetting ideas and deciding which ones merit debate is central to the university's project of advancing knowledge and seeking the truth (teaching and research). All intellectual endeavors proceed as communities of experts pursue this common goal of advancing their insights. New ideas get accepted when their proponents can challenge the reigning orthodoxy along some agreed-upon methodology (citing evidence, using reliable sources, presenting coherent arguments, excluding deliberate falsehoods and lies, exposing real contradictions in the existing fields). All fields constantly generate unpopular ideas that battle for acceptance and may result in new paradigms of knowledge. The university strives (not always perfectly!) to be a community where everyone pursues the shared goal of advancing knowledge rather than a particular subset of ideas. Many important new insights were made by renegades, from Copernicus and Galileo to Einstein and feminist art critics such as Linda Nochlin. Their ideas first appeared often in nonmainstream venues but gained traction because they were coherent, persuasive, based on evidence and challenged the existing fields on their terms.

The problem of vetting ideas and not excluding worthy ideas is complicated, and also a bit different for sciences vs. humanities. My thinking is closer to Thomas Kuhn's paradigm shifts in Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which depend on communities of a shared value (searching for the truth in coherent ways).

The bigger problem is that universities get confused about their mission in the free speech debates and insist (the University of Chicago principles are a prime example) that open-ended and unregulated inquiry is their purpose. That is not the university's purpose: the university's purpose is open inquiry for the sake of advancing knowledge. Free speech in the university happens in the service of another ideal, namely truth/knowledge with the equal participation of all qualified participants.

Q: How could public universities operate based on your ideas?

A: They must articulate their purpose and mission -- to advance knowledge and seek the truth -- as staked on both open inquiry and equal participation. Once these values are understood as interlinked (not in conflict) then universities can subject speakers and ideas to a test of whether their appearance contributes to or conflicts with the university's mission. The First Amendment is not a good lens for this, since our courts, including the Supreme Court, have permitted universities to set their own standards to achieve their mission.

Public universities should structure student groups and faculty decisions on outside speakers in partnerships so everyone bears a shared responsibility for outside speakers. Large schools such as the University of California, Berkeley, should make the security costs for provocative speakers a matter of public debate. If need be, speakers who come with enormous costs should be Skyped in. Speaker fees from outside agencies (Turning Point USA, etc.) should be capped. Publics should insist that they have a right to refer speakers to off-campus venues, and include time/manner/space rules without breaking any laws. This has happened. Once publics explain their mission not as a free-for-all and the same as the proverbial town square but a public institution with a particular and specific goals, judges will not inevitably rule in favor of provocative speakers, the American Civil Liberties Union will (and has already done so) back off from such speakers and the media will learn what the purpose of a university is.


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