a theory of free speech on campus

Last Thursday, students at my university (Tufts) assembled to protest an incident described as follows in the Boston Globe:

    The freshman, who is white, approached five men from the group who were practicing a dance for an upcoming cultural show and insisted the dancers teach him their moves, according to the school newspaper and a news release from the Korean Students Association. When the dancers refused and asked him to leave, the freshman responded with expletives, called them “gay,” spat on them, and threatened to kill them, according to one written account. A fight ensued and the dancers pinned the freshman to the floor, put him in a headlock, and let him go only when he said he could not breathe, said a written account of the incident from the Korean Students Association. The freshman then allegedly spewed a string of racial epithets, yelling at the Korean students to “Go back to China.”

The incident (as described by several witnesses, but not yet independently adjudicated) is extremely ugly. It has no place on a campus and requires a response that goes beyond the case itself. But the protest–to judge by comments in the Tufts Daily–was itself controversial, provoking complaints of “political correctness.” At the risk of responding rather abstractly and cerebrally to a raw case, I’d like to say something about speech in academia.

The central value, in my opinion, is not freedom but quality. A university is not like the state, which has to be extremely careful about using its dreadful powers to assess or influence expression. A university is all about influencing expression. Every grade on an essay, every tenure decision, every invitation to a visiting speaker, and every revision of an administrator’s memo is a judgment of quality, with consequences. A university is a voluntary community dedicated to improving discourse. Members are entitled to leave, and the university is entitled to discipline or even expel them for what they say.

We are the heirs of the Free Speech Movement, which dramatically improved colleges by ending bans on political expression and loyalty oaths. We should be grateful to that movement–but understand it correctly. The old rules against political expression had reduced the quality of discourse on campuses by bracketing a whole set of essential questions. Such bans were invidious. But the alternative was not freedom per se; it was a new environment in which discussion of politics was allowed–and even favored.

One famous free speech case, Keyshian v Board of Regents, struck down loyalty oaths in New York State schools on the theory that:

    Our Nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned. That freedom is therefore a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom. “The vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools.” … The classroom is peculiarly the “marketplace of ideas.” The Nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas which discovers truth “out of a multitude of tongues, [rather] than through any kind of authoritative selection.”

I’m 100% against loyalty oaths, but I don’t think the “marketplace of ideas” metaphor can really justify freedom in classrooms. First, a marketplace requires incentives. A marketplace of ideas only works if you obtain rewards for being correct. In the classroom–and more broadly, in academic institutions–the main incentives are grades, degrees, speaking invitations, and jobs. These are not handed out neutrally; they are given in recognition of quality. The system that awards these incentives is rather hierarchical and centralized. So there is no market within a university, although universities compete with each other in a market for students. They promise–not freedom–but the ability to assess and reward excellence.

Second, “truth” is not the only mark of quality–contrary to the passage from Keyshian quoted above. Elegance, relevance, originality, respect for others, and social value also count. Universities are in the education business. Their students, and others whom they influence, are supposed to learn to think and speak well. Telling Korean-American students to “go back to China” is thus a failure of higher education. The precise remedy is a matter of judgment, but it certainly cannot be tolerated on grounds of “free speech.”

(See also Justice O’Connor’s theory of academic freedom.)