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.

{ 2 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.

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