Steps Toward Free Speech on Campus

When we began our study of higher education seven years ago, we had clear expectations about what we would hear from various constituencies. Our predictions were frequently off the mark. We had expected to hear a lot about political disputes on campus, but in fact, across constituencies, we heard much more about personal problems: student feelings that they did not belong, and student reports of depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges.

Why such a cloudy crystal ball? Here’s one analysis. Over the last several years, notable political disputes have garnered headlines in the written and broadcast media. For anyone who follows life on American campuses, the mere mention of a college can activate a predictable set of associations:

Indeed, it is the fortunate campus that has not garnered such headlines in the last few years.

We do not know whether, if our study were repeated or were longitudinal, we would encounter more mentions on campus of these “hot wire” political issues. Or whether, alternatively, such episodes are of interest chiefly to the media, ever eager for dramatic stories, or for administrators or trustees whose most fervent wish is to remain off the front page.

On reflection, I’ve reached some tentative conclusions. Actual controversies about specific speakers are not that common; as documented by Sanford Ungar, who tracks free speech issues, campus clashes are restricted to a small number of provocative speakers, almost all politically conservative. If you invite Anne Coulter or Milo Yiannopoulos or Richard Spencer to campus, you can expect vocal protests; and if they actually make it to campus, they will require protections with the attendant expenses. There appear to be no left-wing speakers who are equally controversial, but certainly a militant atheist like Richard Dawkins would cause perturbations at a religious campus.

A political issue of a different flavor concerns me. This “free speech” issue concerns the amount of self-censoring by students, teachers, and administrators; the reasons for such self-censoring; and whether that self-censoring is important and needed, or problematic and ripe for confrontation. Here’s where one encounters arguments about “safe spaces,” political correctness, trigger warnings, and other efforts to lower the political, social, and cultural heat before it has a chance to move the campus thermometer in a risky direction. I teach at a professional school, the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where such self-censoring is a live issue—one predictably discussed more in hushed terms than on public platforms.

In his book Safe Spaces, Brave Spaces, law professor-turned-school leader John Palfrey lays out the arguments pertaining to both facets of the title. He explains the importance of free speech, particularly in the American context (the United States has the strongest laws protecting free speech anywhere in the world). Palfrey also reviews the reasons why many individuals, particularly from certain historically disadvantaged groups, feel that they have been the victims of free speech norms, and accordingly favor various kinds of interventions which make them feel safe. This situation has only been aggravated by social media outlets, like Yik Yak (now deceased) or lurid posts on Reddit, which allow anonymous hate speech presumptively under the cloak of the first amendment to the Constitution. On this “safe space” line of argument, there are valid reasons for creating safe spaces of various sorts on a campus.

It would be more than presumptuous of me to come down hard on either side of this debate—I respect John Palfrey’s moderate, even-handed stance.

That said, I put forth here a proposal that seems sensible for colleges and universities—and especially for those institutions that are not purely vocational, those institutions that we should expect to draw on the terminology, the concepts, and the traditions of the liberal arts and sciences when controversial issues arise.

When admitted, students should be informed about what it means to be a student in that particular community of learning. Aspirations for free, unfettered communication—even, perhaps especially, on controversial issues—should be the goal. But if that is the goal, one needs to have clear examples of how such discussions should take place: what it means to disagree strongly without being disagreeable or worse. And equally, one needs specific examples of speech acts, language, debating tacks that are counterproductive—and why such expressions and tactics should accordingly be discouraged or, in extreme cases, sanctioned.

An example: The arguments put forth by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray in their book The Bell Curve are certainly controversial; but it is possible to discuss the issues civilly. Indeed, over the years, I have done so both in person and on the radio with Charles Murray.

I propose two ordered steps:

  1. Campus Consensus

The leaders of the community (senior administrators, faculty, trustees) must themselves agree on the norms of the community. This is not easy to do, needless to say—and especially challenging when the population is large and diverse! Indeed, when such agreement had not been achieved at the University of Chicago in the fall of 2016, the results were counterproductive—students and others heard contradictory messages. Those with the biggest stake in the institution must take whatever steps are needed to bring about a viable consensus, which can then be shared—publicly—with the wider community.

  1. Onboarding of New Students (and others, which would include new faculty, as well as transfer students).

The school must devote as much time and effort as necessary to familiarizing students with the norms of communication and discussion with respect to controversial issues, the reasons for them, and the consequences if these norms are undermined. In recent years, such efforts have been undertaken with respect to plagiarism, a much more pervasive problem since the advent of the Internet, and with respect to sexual misdeeds, a perennial problem, though one whose frequency across time is difficult to estimate.

These forms of onboarding are obviously important; the nature and the specifications of the norms of discussion and discourse about important topics are at least as important. They are absolutely central to the purposes of a college or university—over time and in any democratic society. And they are most likely to come up in courses in the humanities and the softer social sciences—particularly those disciplines that are in jeopardy nowadays.

Along with other societies around the globe, contemporary American society is challenged today on these very issues. If our future leaders and our future citizens are to have disagreements without being intimidated or resorting to disruption, we had better lay the groundwork during undergraduate years—if not sooner.

© 2019 Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner

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