Free speech at universities

2016-02-19

in Language, Law, Politics, Teaching, Writing

The Economist recently printed an article about free speech on university campuses in the U.S..

In particular, they contrast thedemands.org which they say “lists speech-curbing demands from students at 72 institutions” and the Chicago Statement which argues that “[c]oncerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable”.

Generally speaking, I am extremely skeptical about curbs on the freedom of speech, even when they have plausible justifications. People don’t have a right not to be offended, and universities must provoke thinking in order to serve their purpose.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

. October 23, 2017 at 12:15 am

The problem on campus, which nevertheless is a real one, is different. A survey of 3,000 college students by Gallup for the Knight Foundation and the Newseum Institute finds that 78% favour campuses where offensive and biased speech is permitted. A separate study found that even at Yale, a hotbed of student protest, 72% oppose codes that circumscribe speech, compared with 16% in favour. Truly illiberal tendencies are limited to about 20% of college students. This is the fraction that thinks it is acceptable to use violence to prevent a “very controversial speaker” from speaking, according to recent survey published by the Brookings Institution immediately after the violence in Charlottesville.

Though outnumbered, this vocal minority can have a chilling effect on what everyone else thinks they can say. At Yale, 42% of students (and 71% of conservatives) say they feel uncomfortable giving their opinions on politics, race, religion and gender. Self-censorship becomes more common as students progress through university: 61% of freshmen feel comfortable gabbing about their views, but the same is true of just 56% of sophomores, 49% of juniors and 30% of seniors.

College administrators at public universities are subject to the full demands of America’s capacious First Amendment, which allows, among other things, hate speech and flag burning. Federal courts have struck down every speech code enacted at a public university, and the Supreme Court has declared academic freedom a “transcendent value” of “special concern to the First Amendment”. Private universities are legally much freer to regulate the speech of their students and affiliates. Many find themselves in an uncomfortable bind. University presidents want racially diverse classes of students, all of whom feel welcome. Trustees and donors, sensitive to the critique of campuses as unthinkingly liberal, want intellectual diversity. Professors want to be left alone.

. October 23, 2017 at 12:20 am

Free Speech on Campus. By Sigal Ben-Porath. University of Pennsylvania Press. 128 pages; $19.96 and £15.99.

INCITEMENT to violence is one of few exceptions the Supreme Court has carved out from America’s most celebrated constitutional right: the right to free speech. But on today’s college campuses, struggles over speech extend well beyond expression that encourages physical harm. In 2015 a lecturer at Yale was excoriated—and felt compelled to resign—after she raised questions about the college’s plea that students avoid culturally insensitive Halloween costumes. The next year the dean of students at the University of Chicago caused a stir by coming out against “intellectual ‘safe spaces’” where students “retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own”. Students have repeatedly succeeded in having invitations to controversial speakers cancelled, and even made tenured faculty fear provocative comments.

. September 3, 2019 at 1:42 pm

Campus radicals are less powerful than the president. But he will be gone by 2021 or 2025. By contrast, the 37% of American college students who told Gallup that it was fine to shout down speakers of whom they disapprove will be entering the adult world in their millions. So will the 10% who think it acceptable to use violence to silence speech they deem offensive. Such views are troubling, to put it mildly. It does not take many threats of violence to warn people off sensitive topics. And although the left usually insist that the only speech they wish to suppress is the hateful sort, they define this rather broadly. “Hateful” views may include opposing affirmative action, supporting a Republican or suggesting that America is a land of opportunity. Mansfield University of Pennsylvania bans students from sending any message that might be “annoying”. In some Republican states, meanwhile, public universities face pressure to keep climate change off the curriculum. Small wonder most American students think their classmates are afraid to say what they think.

As societies have grown more politically polarised, many people have come to believe that the other side is not merely misguided but evil. Their real goal is to oppress minorities (if they are on the right) or betray the United States (if they are on the left). To this Manichean view, campus radicals have added a second assertion: that words are in themselves often a form of violence, and that hearing unwelcome ideas is so traumatic, especially for disadvantaged groups, that the first job of a university is to protect its faculty and students from any such encounter. Some add that any campus official who disputes this dogma, or who inadvertently violates the ever-expanding catalogue of taboos, should be hounded out of their job.

. September 3, 2019 at 2:11 pm

The notion that certain views should be silenced is popular on the left, too. In Britain and America students shout down speakers they deem racist or transphobic, and Twitter mobs demand the sacking of anyone who violates an expanding list of taboos. Many western radicals contend that if they think something is offensive, no one should be allowed to say it.

Meanwhile, in mature democracies, support for free speech is ebbing, especially among the young, and outright hostility to it is growing. Nowhere is this more striking than in universities in the United States. In a Gallup poll published last year, 61% of American students said that their campus climate prevented people from saying what they believe, up from 54% the previous year. Other data from the same poll may explain why. Fully 37% said it was “acceptable” to shout down speakers they disapproved of to prevent them from being heard, and an incredible 10% approved of using violence to silence them.

. September 3, 2019 at 2:11 pm

Many students justify this by arguing that some speakers are racist, homophobic or hostile to other disadvantaged groups. This is sometimes true. But the targets of campus outrage have often been reputable, serious thinkers. Heather Mac Donald, for example, who argues that “Black Lives Matter” protests prompted police to pull back from high-crime neighbourhoods, and that this allowed the murder rate to spike, had to be evacuated from Claremont McKenna College in California in a police car. Furious protesters argued that letting her speak was an act of “violence” that denied “the right of black people to exist”.

Such verbal contortions have become common on the left. Many radicals argue that words are “violence” if they denigrate disadvantaged groups. Some add that anyone who allows offensive speakers a platform is condoning their wicked ideas. Furthermore, as America has polarised politically, many people have started to divide the world simplistically into “good” people (who agree with them) and “evil” people (who don’t). This has led to bizarre altercations. At Reed College in Portland, Oregon, Lucia Martinez Valdivia, a gay, mixed-race lecturer with post-traumatic stress disorder, was accused of being “anti-black” because she complained about the aggressive students who stood next to her shouting down her lectures on ancient Greek lesbian poetry (to which the hecklers objected because the poet Sappho would today be considered white). As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argue in “The coddling of the American mind”:

“If some students now think it’s OK to punch a fascist or white supremacist, and if anyone who disagrees with them can be labelled a fascist or a white supremacist, well, you can see how this rhetorical move might make people hesitant to voice dissenting views on campus.”

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