free speech at a university

(Charlottesville, VA) From Mr Jefferson’s University, here are some thoughts about free speech in academia.

This may seem a simple topic: students and faculty should be able to express themselves freely. But I think it is quite complicated, for two reasons.

First, the university is all about adjudicating and rewarding quality, which conflicts with freedom. Every admissions letter, grade on a paper or a class discussion, decision about hiring or promotion, peer-review, invitation to give a lecture, or choice to acquire a book for the library is a decision about quality. The First Amendment gives you the right to say what you like. But if you write a weak argument for a paper, or express yourself on an irrelevant topic, you will get a lower grade. An institution thoroughly dedicated to making high-stakes assessments cannot also be a free-speech zone.

Second, educators and students both have claims to freedom of speech, and those claims may conflict. Duke Provost Peter Lange was once presented with this scenario:

In the Jan. 25 issue of the Chronicle, a Duke student complained about what he perceived as propagandizing in one of his classes: “One of the most insulting moments of my Duke education occurred in an ancient Chinese history class in spring 2003, when the U.S. was preparing to invade Iraq. Our teacher took a break from Confucius and the Han Dynasty to stage a puzzling “teach-in” about Iraq in conjunction with some national organization. During this supposedly neutral discussion, she regaled us with facts and assertions suggesting that the Iraq war was scandalous, foolish and doomed to fail …”

Of course, the Iraq war was scandalous, foolish and doomed to fail. But the teach-in, if accurately described, sounds improper to me. This kind of complaint leads to the provision in the “Academic Bill of Rights” that “Faculty will not use their courses for the purpose of political, ideological, religious or anti-religious indoctrination.” But that clearly trades off against a different provision in the same document: “Academic freedom consists in protecting the intellectual independence of professors …” An intellectually independent professor could choose to indoctrinate (or could speak in a way perceived as indoctrination by students who disagree). As Lange said, to ban that kind of expression limits the professor’s freedom of speech.

Perhaps professors have no valid claim freedom within their classrooms. Let them talk freely on their own time; when on the job, their purpose is to educate the students in their charge. That argument presumes that the value of free speech accrues to the speaker alone–it is about protecting her liberty, dignity, or sheer preference. But free speech also benefits the listeners, including listeners who sharply disagree. As J.S. Mill argued, you cannot test an idea unless you can hear it forcefully expressed by someone who actually believes it. To prevent professors from expressing their own ideas is to take those ideas off the table. In a famous statement from 1894, the University of Wisconsin Regents claimed that professorial freedom would lead toward truth:

We cannot for a moment believe that knowledge has reached its final goal, or that the present condition of society is perfect. … In all lines of academic investigation it is of the utmost importance that the investigator should be absolutely free to follow the indications of truth wherever they may lead. Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.

That is an eloquent expression of one side of the debate, but we should not ignore the other side: the rights of the students. A professor has the power to set the agenda and can assign grades for what students say and write. Untrammeled liberty by professors can definitely “chill” the freedom of expression of their students. I think the evidence that professors actually indoctrinate on any substantial scale is weak.* But it could happen.

To make things even more complicated, educators talk to educators; and students, to students. They should all be able to express themselves freely, and yet one’s expression can hamper another’s freedom and flourishing. That is especially true when the balance of power among them is unequal: for instance, when one side outranks or outnumbers the other or has more social clout. “Microaggressions” are exercises of speech that suppress the welfare–and perhaps the liberty–of others. To those who are wholeheartedly committed to confronting microaggressions, I would recall the importance of the speakers’ freedom. Unless people are permitted and even encouraged to say what they think, their ideas cannot be debated, and we can pursue the truth. On the other hand, to those who see the language of “microaggression” as oppressive political correctness, I would argue that some statements really do undermine the standing of our peers and are incompatible with the demanding norms of speech in a university. That doesn’t mean that rules against demeaning speech are wise, but we should be able to denounce a verbal aggression when it occurs.

Since I am here as the guest of the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society, among other sponsors, I will end by quoting Jefferson: “I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty, than those attending too small a degree of it.” But he was also the author of the Senate’s “Manual of Parliamentary Practice,” with its elaborate rules to promote civility and mutual respect. That balance is difficult but crucial.

*(As I noted in a previous post, Yates and Youniss find that a powerful dose of Catholic social doctrine does not convert predominantly Protestant African American students, but provokes them to reflect on their own values. McDevitt and colleagues (in a series of papers including this one), find that political debates in school stimulate critical discussions in the home. Colby et al. find that interactive political courses at the college level, although taught by liberal professors, do not move the students in a liberal direction but deepen their understanding of diverse perspectives. Evidence of the effects of college ideological climates is ambiguous because of students’ self-selection into friendly environments.)

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.