Charlie Hebdo, American academia, and free speech

David Brooks begins today’s column: “The journalists at Charlie Hebdo are now rightly being celebrated as martyrs on behalf of freedom of expression, but let’s face it: If they had tried to publish their satirical newspaper on any American university campus over the last two decades it wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds. Student and faculty groups would have accused them of hate speech. The administration would have cut financing and shut them down.”

It’s critical to distinguish between two questions: 1) How should I (or a small group) manage a forum of communication that is under my or our control? and 2) What rights do people have to run their own fora?

A forum might be a newspaper or a magazine, a course, a speaker series, a website, or the wall outside my office. If I (either alone or with colleagues) am responsible for that forum, then I must decide how it should be run. It can be an open forum in which anyone may post anything. But that is a choice, not an obligation, and often it’s a bad one. I much prefer the edited and curated homepage of the New York Times to an unmoderated chat. Assuming we choose to manage a space, we must make constant decisions about what and whom to include and exclude. It is appropriate to consider questions of relevance, quality, impact on various people, diversity, consistency, fairness, and more.

A society, however, should not be a forum with one set of rules and values. It should include an enormous array of quasi-autonomous fora under many different managers, rules, and value-systems. Individuals and voluntary groups should have very extensive rights to create and run their own fora in their own ways.

Thus there is no contradiction at all between saying (a) I would rather not post an anti-Islamic cartoon on my website or invite an anti-Islamic speaker to address my class, and (b) the cold-blooded murder of Charlie Hebdo’s staff was a fascistic assault on human rights and liberty. These are actually closely related ideas, because both stem from the fundamental principle that forums of communication must be plural and autonomous.

Thus I am not concerned or embarrassed that American academic institutions may be reluctant to invite inflammatory anti-Muslim speakers. That’s a reasonable judgment by the organizers of those particular fora.

One thing that does worry me is the gradual evolution of each American university from a plural array of fora into a singular forum. In some ideal world, a university would be a space in which tenured faculty and students can exercise a high degree of free speech, creating their own mini-fora: diverse classes, speaker series, associations, and publications. To be sure, certain aspects of the university–such as the annual commencement address–must be chosen by the institution and thus must be governed by uniform criteria and processes. But in a healthy university, those centralized fora do not crowd out all the diversity.

I see increased centralization of control over a university’s discourse and inquiry, due to: the influence of external donors, the severe shortage of tenured positions, the rising share of contingent faculty, IRB review, multiplying layers of administration (so writes an associate dean for research), increasingly sophisticated PR efforts, and the growing role of metrics and assessments. Campus speech codes and other explicit regulations of speech may also play a role–and I am skeptical of these interventions–but I don’t think they represent the main threat to pluralism.