The brief summer respite from controversies surrounding free speech on campus ended last week when the University of Chicago sent a letter to incoming students affirming its bedrock commitment to academic freedom, while decrying trigger warnings, “safe spaces” and censorship. The letter went viral, prompting impassioned responses ranging from full-throated endorsements to charges that it reeked of “arrogance, of a sense of entitlement [and] of an exclusionary mindset.”
Get ready for another contentious academic year on the free speech front. A recent Gallup poll concluded that college students support First Amendment rights “in the abstract” but “many are also comfortable shuttering free speech and impeding a free press” in order to restrict “offensive or biased speech.” Taking the measure of campus debates about free expression from this past academic year, the survey results provide additional evidence that real issues are at stake beyond the scorching, end-is-nigh headlines such as “The Death of Free Speech on College Campuses.”
Increasing skepticism about the importance of free expression is turning a significant -- and vocal -- contingent of students into cynics who regard free speech as nothing more than a weapon of the rich, the powerful and the privileged. That trend poses a threat to the development of robust critical thinking skills as well as to the health and vitality of participatory democracy.
For those students who imagine that First Amendment rights are monopolized by the “entitled,” free speech is seen as little more than a license to offend and oppress historically marginalized groups, especially people of color. If this sounds fanciful, you haven’t spent enough time reading through the editorial pages of college newspapers from the past few years. Here is a representative excerpt from a March 2016 op-ed from the Bates College newspaper: "Advocating for unlimited free speech privileges a certain group of people who already have the opportunity for their voices to be heard. It advocates for unlimited acts of violence and aggression towards marginalized people with little to no consequence. For this reason, it is hard for me not to argue for the censorship of what we say, to ensure that marginalized people have a verbal space to inhabit safely in public, as it is obvious that they do not always have safe physical spaces to inhabit in this country."
On the issue of censorship, the author has lots of company. The “Free Expression” Gallup poll reported that more than two out of three students say colleges should be allowed to “establish policies that restrict slurs and other language that is intentionally offensive to certain groups.” Setting aside epithets, more than one in four say colleges should be able to restrict speech “expressing political views that are upsetting or offensive to certain groups.”
Those numbers signal that many students are suspicious of -- or even downright reject -- the premise that the best antidote to offensive speech is always more speech, an idea that has long been a basic tenet of free expression. Among these students, the survey revealed, are men and women, whites and blacks as well as Democrats, Republicans and Independents; so let’s put to rest the charge leveled by some on the right that it’s just those “pesky” women, minorities and bleeding hearts who are calling into question First Amendment rights.
The Gallup survey also investigated the extent to which students feel comfortable articulating their opinions. Fifty-four percent of the students say the “climate on my campus prevents some people from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive.” Senior administrators and faculty members bear some responsibility for this troubling state of affairs. According to a report from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), more than half of colleges and universities have restrictive speech codes -- that is, “policies prohibiting student and faculty speech that would, outside the bounds of campus, be protected by the First Amendment.”
In addition, more than 100 colleges and universities (and counting) have Bias Response Teams, which are tasked with investigating and responding to complaints about so-called “bias incidents.” At Syracuse University, “name calling,” “avoiding or excluding others” and “making comments on social media about someone’s political affiliations/beliefs” are all potential instances of bias. In principle and practice, Bias Response Teams communicate to students that “no incident is too small to report.”
Regarding faculty members, under the powerful influence of the “linguistic turn,” we scholars in the humanities -- and occasionally those in the social sciences -- have been banging on for decades about the awesome power of language (or discourse, in its formal dress), outlining in exquisite detail the ways in which it may serve to coerce, subjugate and oppress. In this kind of environment where speech is oftentimes regulated and the capacity of words to inflict damage is frequently underscored, it’s no wonder that some students of all backgrounds are in favor of eliminating speech that might insult or offend.
Unless I’m gravely mistaken, the overwhelming majority of students who are afraid to share their ideas, opinions and beliefs are not closeted bigots. Even so, they are understandably reluctant to have frank conversations -- in classrooms and in proverbial late-night bull sessions -- about questions that might veer into controversial territory. Questions like: Is sexual orientation hard-wired or a personal choice? How do you tell the difference between cultural mixture and cultural appropriation? And is the Black Lives Matter movement achieving its objectives?
It was, in fact, an earnest attempt to reckon with the last question that sent Wesleyan University into a tailspin last September when a student named Bryan Stascavage wrote an op-ed in the campus newspaper challenging some of the rhetoric and tactics associated with Black Lives Matter. Judge for yourself, but the Washington Post seemed to get it right when the paper said his analysis was “no more radical than the conservative commentary you might see on mainstream op-ed pages” in national papers. Many Wesleyan students, however, were deeply offended by the piece -- in the midst of a campus uproar about the “frustration, anger, pain and fear that members of the student body felt in response to the op-ed,” stacks of the paper were stuffed into recycling bins, the student government slashed the newspaper budget in half and Stascavage was tarred a “racist.”
The calamity at Wesleyan set the tone for an academic year filled with troubling incidents of campus censorship and threats to free speech, including growing concerns about the “tension between academic freedom and Title IX enforcement,” an activist push to restrict or ban news-media coverage of student protests at several colleges and universities, and numerous attempts -- some successful, some not -- to disinvite “objectionable” speakers from coming to campus. Calls for trigger warnings about “disturbing” classroom content continued to proliferate, to the point where some students are now requesting trigger warnings -- or even alternative assignments -- for readings about the Holocaust.
The academic year came to a fitting end with the ACLU filing a lawsuit against the University of California at San Diego in May to “enforce core First Amendment rules against targeting the press.” Earlier in the year, the student government, aided and abetted by administrators, cut funding for all student media in an attempt to shut down the Koala, a raunchy and irreverent satirical paper in the tradition of the Harvard Lampoon and the Onion. The precipitating event was a column called “UCSD Unveils New Dangerous Space on Campus,” which ridiculed trigger warnings and safe spaces. In numerous complaints submitted to the UCSD Bias Response Team about the paper’s “sexist and racist comments masked under cruel humor,” students called for “an end” to the Koala or, at the very least, a system for “administrative approval of the content.”
Beyond the campus green, you cannot just shut down the presses when confronted by speech that offends you. “In a democracy,” the late philosopher Ronald Dworkin wrote in the wake of the 2005 Danish cartoon controversy, “no one, however powerful or impotent, can have a right not to be insulted or offended.” It’s not unreasonable to expect that a reluctance to engage with “distasteful” or "scary" ideas will render students defenseless when they step into the sometimes rough-and-tumble civic arena after they graduate. On too many campuses, widely held political positions that aren’t “progressive” -- such as being pro-life or against gun control-- are summarily dismissed as intolerable.
“Part of being an American is the obligation to listen to language that makes you uncomfortable,” criminal lawyer and staunch First Amendment champion David Baugh said in a recent interview. “If you’re going to be a citizen, if you’re going to speak freely, you have to be able to tolerate bad ideas.” For Baugh -- who is African American, the son of a Tuskegee fighter pilot -- his declarations on tolerance are not sanctimonious abstractions. Working with the ACLU in the late 1990s, Baugh volunteered to help defend Barry Elton Black, an imperial wizard in the Ku Klux Klan who had been arrested for cross burning, an outcome that Baugh considered a violation of Black’s First Amendment rights. (The Supreme Court, in its 2003 Virginia v. Black decision, agreed.)
Elaborating on how to address “bad ideas” such as racial supremacy, Baugh explained, “In a true free society, every idea has to be discussed if for no other reason than saying that’s a stupid, damn idea, we ought to throw it away.” This is a more colloquial version of the phrase from Yale University’s 1975 Woodward Report that intellectual growth and discovery require the freedom to “think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.” In an educational setting, playing devil’s advocate to consider unpopular or minority positions is an indispensable teaching tool. Beyond the classroom, tolerance for ideas we find misguided or repellent does not mean, as many students appear to believe, that we condone them. It’s possible to condemn ideas, broadcasting our misgivings to the high heavens, without censoring them.
Critical Thinking and Citizenship Rights
If colleges and universities shrink from engaging with materials students find too sensitive, controversial or offensive, the growth of their critical thinking skills will be severely stunted. We already have a tendency to misrepresent ideas that we disagree with. And that’s when we actually expose ourselves to them. Only 16 percent of college students say Americans do a good job at “seeking out and listening to differing viewpoints from their own.” A “just say no” approach to “objectionable” materials will turn us into intellectual sloths. Without the stimulation to interrogate our basic assumptions or to consider alternatives to our preferred explanations, our own ideas will devolve into pathetic caricatures. If you are in favor of affirmative action, for instance, how sophisticated can your position really be if you refuse to engage with the claims and evidence advanced by its critics?
Scholars on the left rightfully challenge our most cherished national ideals such as “freedom,” “equality” and “opportunity,” showing how they have not applied to far too many groups of people based on their race, national origin or gender. (Women, for example, have been eligible to cast votes in less than half of our presidential contests.) Since the election of Barack Obama, the idea that we live in a post-racial society has been subjected to withering criticism from left-leaning academics. Supported by a raft of empirical data, professors like legal scholar Michelle Alexander of The New Jim Crow fame cogently argue that the notion of a post-racial United States is an illusion, a self-congratulatory lie we tell ourselves in order to justify gross social and economic inequalities. As Princeton University professor of religion and African American Studies Eddie Glaude Jr. acidly observes, “We have a black man in the White House and nearly one million black men and women in the Big House.”
The left’s attention to power dynamics and structural inequalities sometimes becomes a fixation. Consider the response of the University of Minnesota’s Council of Graduate Students to a draft faculty statement on free speech released this past March. “People found [the text] offensive,” a spokesperson for the Council of Graduate Students reported. In a letter objecting to the “Four Core Principles” document, the executive committee of the Council called some of the language used “tone-deaf” and “ill-advised,” dismissing as “deplorably patronizing” the proposition that “the most effective response to offensive ideas is to rebut them with better ideas.” It also roundly rejected the principle that “free speech cannot be regulated on the ground that some speakers are thought to have more power or more access to the mediums of speech than others.” Instead, the graduate student group argued, the university should give “special consideration to otherwise marginalized speakers,” a kind of affirmative action for speech that would provide distinct forums for “those who are not well-spoken or who use English as a second language.” (Whatever you think of this idea, it would be a logistical nightmare to implement.)
It would be unpardonably naïve for free speech proponents to ignore the fact that some voices -- the rich, the powerful, the white, the male -- have been amplified, while others have been tuned out or muted. Even in the age of social media where the public square is a click away, we need to be mindful that the speech of some individuals, rightly or wrongly, has more currency in the marketplace of ideas. Nonetheless, this marketplace is teeming and vibrant, energized by a multitude of different points-of-view. As I write, the book that has been on The New York Times hardcover non-fiction list the longest is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a text that argues, “‘White America’ is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control [black] bodies.”
It would also be disingenuous for strong advocates of free expression to dismiss the charge that ringing the free speech alarm bell sometimes serve as an excuse to malign student protesters and deflect attention from pressing conversations about racism or other social problems. This “diversion” thesis is not without merit -- just take a few minutes to skim through the contemptuous stories about campus activism on websites such as The College Fix, the Daily Caller or Heat Street.
But free speech, we are obliged to acknowledge, has been at the heart of every single successful movement devoted to expanding citizenship rights and enlarging the charmed circle of “we the people,” from abolitionism and woman’s suffrage to marriage equality. So it’s especially ironic that, while some students compare unfettered free speech to lynching, today’s most energetic social movement is devoted to ending violence against black people. Emerging from a hashtag, Black Lives Matter would not be a household name or a substantial political force without First Amendment rights, including the freedom of speech, the press and assembly.
Rue the day that “free speech” starts to appear more regularly in scare quotes. If we encourage the same kind of sneering disdain for free speech that some reserve for ideas like colorblindness, meritocracy and the “American dream,” we will be in deep trouble. Our democracy will be impoverished and so too will our minds. Taking any kind of stand that undercuts free speech is like launching a vendetta on the air we breathe. If it’s successful, we will all suffocate.