Campus speech in contentious times
How many of you had a quiz in class today? I see. Well, sorry, but you’re going to have another one. But it’s easy. One question. And it’s even multiple choice, with only two statements to choose from. So here we go: Freedom of speech belongs to A) People I agree with --- or B) Everyone. I hope you chose B. Especially because this is a university. What is a better example of the role of free speech as a fundamental American value than to allow it on campus?
Everyone is entitled to express themselves, whether on or off campus, but the university campus occupies a special place in American society. That the concept of the university as a unique entity arose in Europe more than 900 years ago is evidence that it was intended and designed to be the home of ideas. But ideas sometimes conflict and make us uncomfortable. And sometimes they offend us and make us upset and angry. When they do so, that’s the signal that a learning opportunity has arrived, an opportunity to develop a counter-argument and push back.
In his most famous work, “On Liberty,” John Stuart Mill argued that even a false belief is valuable because the crucible of debate is where such ideas compete with others and the truth of an opposing view confirmed. One of the core beliefs of democracy is that the people will recognize the best arguments on political and social issues and choose accordingly.
One of the very earliest expressions of that belief – more than 200 years before Mill – is found in poet John Milton’s – yes, that John Milton – of Paradise Lost fame – famous 1644 essay Areopagitica, where he wrote, speaking of truth, “Let her and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth to be put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, one of the 20th century’s leading intellectual heirs of Mill, forcefully argued for allowing opposing views to grapple in the 1929 case U.S. v. Schwimmer: “If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought – not for free thought for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought that we hate.”
Holmes was always careful to distinguish between facts – which can be demonstrably false – and ideas, which he said can’t be, but which he famously said always amount to an incitement – which is a call to marshal counter-arguments. That brings to mind the view of Justice Edward Sanford, who wrote in the 1925 case Gitlow v. New York, that the best antidote for hate speech is more speech.
I’m sure we’re all at least somewhat familiar with the recent disturbance at Middlebury College in Vermont, where students drowned out and prevented a controversial conservative social scientist, Charles Murray, co-author of the 1994 work, “The Bell Curve,” from speaking. Murray’s conclusion that racial minorities are genetically programmed to be of lower intelligence has been thoroughly refuted, and in my opinion, rightly so. The speaking tour he’s on now – which began this week at Duke – is for a different work, Coming Apart, which he published in 2013 and has been well received. That work argues that the white middle class is dividing itself into an upper class and a lower class, but it’s “The Bell Curve” that is provoking the protests.
All that reminds me that this kind of protest on campuses is not new. In fact, almost identical arguments were made in the mid-’70s by Nobel Prize winner William Shockley. Shockley was even further off the mark than Murray, however – he wasn’t even a social scientist or geneticist – he was an electrical engineer. But the way Shockley was handled was to assemble solid facts and expert opinion that, taken together, exposed the many flaws in his methodology and findings. Today Shockley’s peculiar arguments are but a footnote in the literature of science.
While we usually view the First Amendment as blocking government from intruding on speech, settled law protects normal campus functions from interference by even the orderly exercise of First Amendment rights under some circumstances. And the university’s obligation to keep students physically safe is unquestionably foremost among its responsibilities. But that’s physical safety – not emotional safety.
Somehow the idea has caught on among some students that there is a right to eliminate points of view and assertions that are offensive or upsetting to them, and that the university should help them in that effort. But that is not the university’s role. If the institution is involved at all, it should be creating opportunities for them to thrust themselves into the vortex of ideas, because it’s from that collision of viewpoints and assault on preconceptions that truth arises. Remember Milton’s famous passage?
The impulse to stifle expression because it is hateful, erroneous, annoying, alarming or contrary to some political or ideological goal – in addition to trampling the speech rights of others – does irreparable harm to the very idea of the university. To fear the consequences of speech illustrates how far we have drifted from the principles of the First Amendment, which throughout provides protection for the notion of expression and belief in all its forms.
It is societies that are diverse, pluralistic – and contentiously roiled by controversy – that most urgently need freedom of speech. The price of freedom is that obnoxious speech, which requires trust that fact and reason can overcome the fanciful and destructive. That’s the Miltonian view again.
Those who resort to the “heckler’s veto” to silence opposing voices often see themselves as virtuous liberals promoting progressive values, but actually they are illiberal, because they are setting down repressive rules, not just about what people can say, but also what they can hear. Unsurprisingly, freedom to hear has long been recognized as a corollary to the right of free speech. As a result, some will accuse those people of being the “thought police,” setting themselves up as the arbiters of a single version of truth.
Sabotaging discourse by shouting down the opposite view gets no one anywhere. The speaker doesn’t learn the source of the rage that is driving the shouting and chanting. The shouters don’t learn anything of the beliefs that the speaker holds. When this replaces true debate and discussion on campus everybody has been failed by their education. It hasn’t taught them that history, sociology, religion and myriad other topics are messy, and thwarting honest discussion alienates the very audiences that need to absorb the ideas from a thorough airing of those views for later evaluation and possible incorporation into their own thinking and beliefs.
The best way to overcome objectionable ideas is to bring them out of the shadows and call them out in the daylight and show why they are wrong, which is why sunshine is often described as “the best disinfectant.” Let the audience decide after all points of view are presented in the marketplace of ideas. To use a rough paraphrase of the feminist writer and activist Audre Lourde, oppression can’t be overcome by using the tools of the oppressor.
The purpose of education is not to confirm or validate what you already believe. If that’s why you’re in college, you’re wasting your money. Those beliefs that accompanied you to college one, two or three years ago are at risk of becoming dead dogma if you don’t sharpen your arguments and learn to defend them and challenge those who challenge you.
Your time on campus is limited and the thinking, speaking and writing skills you should be practicing every day are aimed at preparing you for constructive engagement with the larger society that won’t automatically parrot your convictions, no matter how sincerely felt. Now is the time to develop and flex your mental muscles so you’ll be ready to participate in the continuous maelstrom that is political and social struggle. An apathetic citizenry dooms freedom, and a loss of freedom is how democracy devolves into authoritarianism and eventually dies. Putting effective and informed public discussion into practice is a civic duty.
A good example of how I think education should work is the way lawyers practice. To be an effective advocate and litigator (few are both, but the idea is the same), knowing the law and arguments that support your side is at most half the job. Not only do you have to know your own case inside out, you have to know your opponent’s case at least as well as he or she does – and preferably better – because you’re going to have to rebut every point by highlighting the flaws and providing convincing alternative arguments for each one. If you can’t do that – you’re going to lose. The lawyer learns the opposition’s case by studying depositions and other materials. The citizen learns by listening.
This is not to say that anyone is going to win every argument, just as no lawyer is going to win every case. Sometimes the contest ends in a draw, no matter how many overtimes you build into the discussion. At some point argument has been exhausted. Was it worth the effort? Of course!
At worst – and I don’t think it’s bad at all – everyone has had the opportunity to learn something about others and the experiences that have informed their opinions and made them who they are. If everyone acts in good faith after reaching that point, what started out as differences that were originally divisive can at least become differences that are the threads of the fabric of a successful multi-faceted and pluralistic community.