Into the Free Speech Debate, Once Again

Steven Volk, March 4, 2019


All images from John Wilkins’ An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language (1668), Wellcome Library, London

In an “off-script” romp before the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) on March 2, President Trump announced his intention to issue an executive order to block federal grants to colleges and universities that don’t take steps to “guarantee free speech.” Here’s some of what he said:

“We reject oppressive speech codes, censorship, political correctness and every other attempt by the hard left to stop people from challenging ridiculous and dangerous ideas. These ideas are dangerous,” Trump said. “Instead we believe in free speech, including online and including on campus.”

Wait, what? What does that even mean? That Trump opposes the “hard left” from confronting people with “ridiculous and dangerous ideas”? That “ridiculous and dangerous ideas” should be welcome on college campuses while any attempt to prevent them should be challenged? That people should be allowed to express their opposition to the “hard left’s…ridiculous and dangerous ideas” because those ideas are “dangerous” and therefore should be, um, censored?

Ugh. Why waste time parsing Trump’s verbiage when his CPAC listeners, like lions in a cage urging their keeper to throw them another hunk of red meat, know exactly what he means irrespective of the words that tumble from his mouth? To conservative Trump supporters – and nearly four-fifths of Republicans think that professors are bringing their (one assumes liberal) political and social views into the classroom – all higher education is a snobbish club where coddled snowflakes and feminized “soy boys” flee from challenging ideas, debate pronoun use, and beat up those foolish enough to sport a MAGA hat on campus. (We’ll just ignore the contradictions here.) Trump and CPAC can extravagantly salute the “free speech” flag without either actually supporting it – more on this below – or understanding its intricacies.

But let’s begin with a dose of reality because, despite the widely circulated impression that intolerant leftist routinely drive controversial speakers out of college auditoriums, relatively few challenges to free speech have occurred on campuses over the last few years. Of those that did occur, a significant number have come from conservative students, not the “hard left”. The Free Speech Project at Georgetown University catalogued 90 “speech issues” from 2016-2018, where an individual’s speech rights were threatened. Of these, about 60 occurred on college campuses. While each violation most certainly deserves attention, perspective is important, particularly when suggesting that challenges to free speech by the “hard left” have reached epidemic proportions. There are about 4,500 institutions of higher education in the United States, a number which indicates, as a recent report observed, “that free speech crises are extremely rare events and don’t define university life in the way that critics suggest.” But they do crank up the conservative outrage machine.

Speech-2Using challenges to free speech as the door through which one can attack higher education in general is maddening in so many ways, not the least of which is that the public’s support for higher education has declined notably in the last few years. Free speech is a complex issue, no more so than in educational settings where, we should all agree, teaching, learning, research, and therefore the open exchange of ideas, are essential. But the concept doesn’t work well as a bumper sticker or as a political call to battle. Even the most enthusiastic of First Amendment supporters recognize limitations to the kinds of speech that are permitted beyond well understood “time, place, and manner” restrictions. Constitutional interpretations have imposed First Amendment limits on “fighting words” [Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, (1942)], incitement that goes beyond advocacy, obscenity, child pornography, certain kinds of commercial speech, limitations regarding false statement of facts [e.g., Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. (1974)], etc. Nor does the First Amendment protect speech that shows a clear intent to discriminate or sexually harass. In other words, “free speech” is not some kind of magic wand that, once waived, allows people to say whatever they want, wherever they want, or whenever they want. I have no right to saunter into the closest Banana Republic to deliver a lecture on the racist history behind the store’s name. A white supremacist has no right to burn a cross in the middle of my campus while encouraging his supporters to attack the Jews and people of color they encounter. Both examples are, of course, extreme, but because we in the academic community occasionally, or even often, have to make determinations regarding speakers who are situated at the margins of what is legally or communally acceptable, it doesn’t advance our understanding to argue that we have no responsibility to even think about who can speak on campus because “we believe in free speech.” Is Charles Murray to be invited? What about Milo Yiannopoulos? Richard Spencer? The leaders of Otzma Yehudit? Berkeley spent $4 million on security for conservative speakers, including Yiannopoulos, in just one month in 2017. Are campus administrators, who have an equal obligation to look out for the safety of their students, required to sit around helplessly while trolls suck their campus coffers dry? Free speech on campus, I repeat yet again, is a complex issue.

At least two different matters circulate within Trump’s chaotic prose. The first has to do with the question of whether colleges and universities are obliged to offer a platform for all ideas, including “ridiculous and dangerous” ones. Here we have to acknowledge the different legal standards that govern pubic vs. private institutions. Private institutions, such as my own, have greater latitude to prohibit speech than do public institutions. (A different set of issues, one should point out, come into play when talking about “academic freedom” rather than “freedom of speech.”) Sticking to speech issues in private educational institutions, then, the question comes up as to whether we have an obligation (legal, intellectual, educational, institutional or professional) to allow all speakers and all ideas, even the “ridiculous and dangerous” ones, access to a platform on our campuses.

Speech-3To follow an argument advanced by Stanley Fish, our normative commitment as academic institutions is not to freedom of speech, it is to freedom of inquiry. Freedom of speech by itself is not an academic value. If it were, we would allow anyone to come in and teach our students, expert or novice, sage or scoundrel, rather than require preparation and demonstrations of competence/excellence, as we do, even if the way we determine who “passes the test” can be flawed at times.  Accuracy of speech, Fish points out, is an academic value, as is completeness of speech or thoughtfulness of speech.

But we also appreciate the complexity of the free speech challenge, as I noted above. What, for example, did Trump mean when he critiqued the “left’s” prohibition of “dangerous” ideas? He probably was referring to ideas that challenge liberal orthodoxy, and he’s all for such challenges. But, from an academic standpoint, just what “dangerous” ideas are we to allow on campus? Those, to adopt a standard JS Mill’s approach, from which we stand to benefit (i.e., to learn): ideas not normally offered or ideas that spring up from the ensuing debate between the orthodox and the transgressive, even if the latter may include ideas that are distasteful as well as unpopular. Elizabeth Barnes, a philosopher at the University of Virginia who deals with issues of disability addressed this question quite well in a recent essay suggestively titled “Arguments that Harm – And Why We Need Them.” I hope we would all say: of course those ideas are welcome (and, in doing so, acknowledge that some of the leftist challenges to speakers that have been widely reported in the media are examples where this has not occurred). But does this obligation carry over to a speaker who is known to challenge the intelligence of African Americans? Are we required to host a climate-change denier? Should the biology department bring in anti-vaxxers? The history department welcome a Holocaust denier? What if the communications department extends an invitation to Goodloe Sutton, the publisher of the Alabama Democrat-Reporter, who called for the KKK to “night ride again”? Are we required, lest we fear a cut in our federal research dollars, to relinquish our requirement to think critically about difficult issues and simply grant a stage to any speaker or host any debate because “free speech” demands that we should? The School of Medicine at Twinsville University extends a warm welcome to Josef Mengele who will lecture on his medical breakthroughs?

I’m not going to provide what my own answers would be for each of the above speakers except to point out that at some point the answer changes from yes to no – not every speaker gets a platform, and not just because we still value freedom of inquiry, accuracy and thoughtfulness of speech, but because we also value the community which we have created on our campuses, a community whose learning and growth we are pledged to support. There comes a point at which discerning educational communities will say that the “dangerous” views are not just unpopular, but lack any historical or scientific standing, serve no intellectual, educational, or social purpose, and are deeply offensive not just to the community of individuals who form the university but to the notion of intellectual inquiry itself. To suggest, as Columbia University did when students protested a talk given by Mike Cernovich, the reactionary media “personality” who brought us “Pizzagate,” that Columbia allows speakers even when their messages “contradict our institutional values, including our commitments to careful thought, factual analysis, and the fundamental worth of all in our community and in the world at large…” is precisely to abandon our obligations to stand for the integrity and completeness of our thought and analysis as well as our need to create an environment which honors the fundamental worth of those who have come to us to teach and learn.

Speech-4These are issues which each college and university has to reason out for itself, free, certainly, from government threats to remove its support for cancer research if Mike Cernovich isn’t given an opportunity to lie about how Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring in the basement of a pizza restaurant. As Debra Mashek, executive director of Heterodox Academy, recently observed, “Governments cannot legislate campus cultures. In order to create classrooms and campuses that welcome diverse people with diverse viewpoints and that equip learners with the habits of heart and mind to engage that diversity in open inquiry and constructive disagreement, colleges and universities must harness their own values, histories and capacities.”

While Trump’s word salad generated all sorts of CPAC hoots and hollers, he didn’t in any way help us make these determinations. Free speech on campus is complex.

The second point to observe about Trump’s speech to CPAC is that, based on the evidence before us, neither he nor his CPAC supporters actually believe in free speech when the shoe is on the other foot and conservatives are the ones depriving others of their rights. When Representative Greg Gianforte physically attacked a Guardian reporter in 2017, throwing him to the ground, Trump responded by saying that “any guy who can do a body slam, he is my type!” In February 2016 during the Iowa caucuses, he said, “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously, OK?” When contemplating a run for the presidency in 2000, Trump opposed NEH funding for an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. At the time he said that although people have a First Amendment right to produce or view such works, “Let them go to a private museum.”

Trump, of course, is not alone in his pinched views of free speech. Students shouting pro-Trump slogans prevented California Attorney General Xavier Bacerra from speaking at Whittier College in October 2017, with no discernible outrage from conservatives. In November 2018, the system president of the University of Wisconsin reprimanded the chancellor of the La Crosse campus for having invited an adult film actress and sex educator to speak during – wait for it – the campus’s free-speech week. The same Regents who the year before had forced through an absolutist “free speech” policy for the university now applauded the reprimand. In December, the chairman of Temple University’s board of trustees began searching for ways to punish or fire tenured professor Marc Lamont Hill for comments he made in a speech to the UN in which he implored international actors to support Palestinian freedom “from the river to the sea.” In June 2017, Lisa Durden, an adjunct professor at Essex County (NJ) College was fired for remarks about “white privilege” on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show. Republican legislators in Tennessee have tried to ban a student-organized “Sex Week” for years even though it does not use state funds. It’s always easier to support free speech when it’s your speech that has just been shut down.

The free speech debate is just one element of a larger crisis. The challenge we face on college and university campuses is the same one that we face as a nation: how do we support, defend, and expand democracy and all that it requires. Debating and engaging in dialogue about how free speech rights interact with our responsibilities as educators is one part of this discussion about democracy. Trump’s speech at CPAC signals, yet again, just how critical that task has become.

2 thoughts on “Into the Free Speech Debate, Once Again

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