Free Speech, Political Correctness and Higher Education

In the past week the University of Chicago made big news by defending academic freedom in a letter to incoming students. “Finally,” a distinguished alumnus wrote in a subject line of an email to me, “some sanity on campus.” Really? How is it possible that a distinguished university polishes its own apple by stating the obvious, that freedom of thought and expression are essential to its mission?

Well, last year was a tumultuous one for campus politics. Events from Claremont California to the University of Missouri to Yale gave plenty of fuel to older pundits already asking, “What’s the matter with kids today?” A chorus of critics of political correctness found common ground in mocking students’ desire for “safe spaces,” their concern over micro-aggressions, their need for trigger warnings. Kids today are coddled, we were told, and when they get to college, they fail to respect the rough and tumble contest of ideas that middle-aged alumni remember as being part of their own college experience. No matter that when most of us oldsters were in college, the campuses were far less diverse places than they are today. There were many voices back then that none of us got to hear.

Why did the Chicago’s Dean of Students feel the need to remind the happy few chosen to be part of the class of 2020 that the university does not support trigger warnings, intellectual “safe spaces” or the cancelling of visiting speakers? What if a faculty member wanted to give students a heads up that they would be reading a racist text or a book about rape so as to help them understand the reasons why it was part of the work of the class? Would giving this “trigger warning” not be part of the professor’s academic freedom? And what if students, as Northwestern’s president Morton Schapiro explained in an op-ed last year, sometimes wanted to hang out in the university’s Hillel so as to feel comfortable (safe) in discussions about Israel? What if students decided to protest a visiting war criminal who has been invited to lecture? Would these run afoul of Chicago’s posture of intellectual toughness?

When confronted with issues of power and inequitable distribution of resources, it’s far too easy to fall back on talk about abstract commitments to freedom and procedures. At a time when violent racism has been exposed as a systematic part of law enforcement, at a time when the legitimation of hatred in public discourse has become an accepted part of national presidential politics, it seems more than a little naive to tell incoming frosh that “civility and mutual respect are vital to all of us.” These students are coming to Chicago, after all ― one of the most violent cities in America. But perhaps the Dean’s letter was aimed at a different audience ― those concerned with the bogeyman of political correctness and those who worry that free speech isn’t the absolute value it used to be. That would explain the concerted efforts of the University of Chicago’s administrators to push for their unfettered marketplace of ideas version of free speech.

That said, I agree that freedom of expression is essential for education and for democracy. But speech is never absolutely free; it always takes place for specific purposes and against a background of some expression that is limited or prohibited. Hate speech and harassment fall into these legal or procedural categories. And there are some things, after all, that a university should refuse to legitimate or dignify by treating them as fit subjects for academic discussion. When we make a subject part of a debate, we legitimate it in ways that may harm individuals and the educational enterprise. We must beware of the rubric of protecting speech being used as a fig leaf for intimidating those with less power.

Last year at Wesleyan University, we had an intense debate about freedom of the press. Some students initially wanted to defund the student newspaper because they found it offensive, but others rushed to its defense. At that time, I wrote:

Debates can raise intense emotions, but that doesn’t mean that we should demand ideological conformity because people are made uncomfortable. As members of a university community, we always have the right to respond with our own opinions, but there is no right not to be offended. We certainly have no right to harass people because we don’t like their views. Censorship diminishes true diversity of thinking; vigorous debate enlivens and instructs.

It’s still the case that the great majority of those studying on American college campuses would agree.

Over time, our students realized that censorship in various forms is antithetical to our educational mission, and they also recognized that the school newspaper could do a better job soliciting diverse of points of view. Rather than merely affirming abstract principle, they worked through an on-the-ground commitment to freedom of expression along with the cultivation of diverse points of view and a sense of belonging. This is not “free speech absolutism” or even a pure standard for campus decision makers to apply. But it is a winning combination for those entering a university, in Chicago or anywhere else.

Cross-posted with the Washington Post.

11 thoughts on “Free Speech, Political Correctness and Higher Education

  1. Your premise is fine but your facts are questionable at best: “violent racism has been exposed as a systematic part of law enforcement…”just how much exposure have you had with law enforcement? Wesleyan has also produced many fine prosecutors who don’t share your view. If you think the Black Lives Matter narrative is systematic, you need to spend some serious time in some of our inner cities and ask those folks who value law enforcement what the real facts are. BLM is a great get out the black vote strategy since Obama won’t be on the top of the ticket, but to treat it as an absolute fact, as you do, does not conform with the real world of law enforcement. Also, for you to presumptuously assume that academia is the only place where divergent, non- traditional points of view are expressed, demonstrably shows how out of touch you are with the real world. Finally, as an historian you know that civility has never been a part of the political process. Even a cursory reading of Chernow’s Hamilton or Washington, shows the intense and deep vitriol the political parties & participants had for each other. You may not like the way Ivy-educated Trump sounds, but his underlying concerns are worth discussion. Btw, when is the last time you built a billion dollar business? Since Wesleyan’s founding, it’s been the corporate titans who have funded the progressive dreamers.

  2. Jon, a couple things I’d like to respond to. First, I was never a fan of the “you’ve never personally experienced it, so how could you know the reality” line of thinking. Most experts in any given field do not necessarily have a personal relationship with their field of study, but we trust the research and data they compile. Same goes for systemic racism by law enforcement. There have been numerous studies this year researching various communities across America, by governmental and academic institutions, that have provided clear cut data that the black community receives a disproportionate amount of violent encounters with law enforcement, and an even greater rate of arrests, searches, and seizures (controlling for community crime level). You are likely right that many in the black community, especially those in the most segregated, underfunded and violent communities, are grateful and respectful toward law enforcement (which is a true fact for most American communities) but that by no means prevents them, or individuals in the Black Lives Matter movement, from critiquing inadequate and prejudicial law enforcement practices. It is not hate of law enforcement, but rather legitimate critique. Those who show no respect toward law enforcement in no way represent BLM, which has maintained an aura of respect and appreciation, with forceful criticism as well. Additionally, I don’t believe that President Roth insinuated that non-traditional viewpoints are only discussed in academic circles, but rather that students need to confront difficult topics during their education because our society is filled with divergent, non-traditional viewpoints. Lastly, your final point on Trump seems to be lost on me. Your “ivy-educated” remark must have been made in farce, because 1) our school’s president, from what I recall, attended an ivy-league school, and 2) his educational background means nothing when his ability to articulate his ideas and policies stops at catchy slogans that enthrall his crowds. Are topics that Trump discusses legitimate? Indeed, the refugee crisis, immigration policy, and trade are all important ideas we must discuss, but the manner (or lack thereof) in which he has approached those topics, with undeniable discriminatory undertones, delegitimizes much of what he has to say. Additionally, the whole billionaire thing? C’mon. He obviously has some business savviness, but when your father is a multi-millionaire real estate developer, and you constantly ignore paying vendors as well as manipulating your debt and the tax code for financial benefit, billionaire status becomes less and less impressive.

  3. Good for you for resisting ideological conformity. However, I’m a University of Chicago Alum (and attorney) and very proud of its statement. “Safe spaces” in response to micro aggressions will not help any student in their career or in the world of work. Of course racism is intolerable and should have a zero-tolerance policy. And of course the academic world represents the last bastion of free speech. However, your points read as though they were lifted from a leftist talking points rather than a reasoned consideration of difficult issues. For example, I don’t think anybody really likes the police, but they are an important part of our social contract and we need to accept, support, and reform them. As for other hot topics such as free speech, it is my perception that the left shouts down the right in any disagreement. I am sick of political correctness, although as a democrat for 64 years I support what is right. Unfortunately, neither candidate – the liar and the loose canon, are both dangerous. However, I cannot support the silliness of “safe spaces” or”micro aggressions” or liars.

  4. Mr. Stover, you’re wrong. Raciwm is, indeed, systematical in both our culture and our law enforcement agency. The problem is the black and white mindset that implies that if cops are racist, then they are no longer the “good guys”, and therefore must be “bad guys”. The world doesn’t functions that way. The BLM movement doesn’t implies that, either. We are all racists, sexists, selfish motherfuckers — the point, however, is to change ourselves, to better ourselves. And that begins by accepting our faults, not by denying them as you, mister Stover, do.

  5. Watching this election from the outside but only outside of the USA (each countries political system and elected leaders effects us all around the world), it is good to read this discussion. However the rise of leaders of the type Trump is denounced as being, arise from particular conditions imposed on the popualtion. That population are likely to vote against the establishment and for anyone who seems to at least recognise their distress. Trump is a symptom and should be identified as such; the debate needs to be the flaws or imbalances in the system that will continue to create Trumps if not corrected. I think we all deserve better more ballanced pollitical systems and more importantly need them if we are going to face the challenges of the future. People are not stupid for believing in Trump they are driven by a belief that the establishment is not being fair to them, are they wrong?

  6. You and your readers may be interested in attending (virtually or personally) a two day conference on this subject to be held by the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College on Oct. 20 & 21.

  7. I was surprised and saddened to receive a letter from Professor Roth from the Coursera web site with a link to his article denouncing the candidacy of Donald Trump. I received the e mail from Coursera because I was enrolled in one of the two courses that he teaches online on this wonderful site. I enjoyed the class and believe Professor Roth to be a fine teacher. I, however, most strongly object to the using of his position to promote a leftist political agenda. His actions simply provide additional evidence of the assertions made by Dennis Prager and others that universities and colleges throughout our nation have become agents of leftism. This is a far greater danger than a Trump candidacy.

  8. Josh, I don’t care what you “feel” (typical entitlement mentality) but I recommend you read Heather MacDonald’s The War on Cops and examine the studies she has referenced. Any rookie prosecutor knows studies are the same as opinions, everybody has one & most stink. You can commission a “study” to prove anything. Even double blinds are easily manipulated but you haven’t lived long enough to figure that out. All humans have biases, good and bad ones, it’s simply a fact of life and no self-actualization project will ever exhume all of one’s biases. We do the best we can in a life that is best a crap shoot. Why don’t you read as Mr. Stover suggests Chernow’s Hamilton and Washington biographies, you might learn that Roth’s anti-Trumpism vastly colors his thinking about what civility or the lack thereof has always been a mainstay in politics. There is nothing new under the sun and while BLM “may” hit upon a legit critique or two, it is still based on a totally false narrative which is perpetuated by the young Marxist media. Live in the real world not in the world of utopian liberal (in today’s) sense, abstractions.

  9. Professor Roth, You have mentioned that “Over time, our students realized that censorship in various forms is antithetical to our educational mission” and I agree with that. However, as an outsider (I am not an US citizen) living outside of the US, I feel that your concerns need to be inclusive of your national situation as well. I seriously doubt if your nation is providing space for free speech at this point in time. I see people talking their mind on politics and social issues losing access to blogs, twitter, facebook and more seriously I came accross a person who has lost his column in a newspaper because he spoke against the system. This is classic censorship. I see this in my country and in other countries all the time and it is no surprise to see it in your country as well. If you think that your press is neutral, please look up Wikileaks. I am giving one example here. 

    James Rubin wrote to Hillary Clinton a mail (Case No. F-2014-20439 Doc No. C05797927 Date: 11/30/2015) in which he is asking her to “to host a smallish dinner” where he is asking her to call people “who I know well enough to trust some level of discretion” for this “off the record dinner.” In this private dinner for this closed group made up of “Eleanor Randolph and carol Giacomo from the New York times editorial board, Richard Cohen of Washington post, David Remnick and Rick Hertzberg from the New Yorker, Leon Wieseltier and Frank Foer from the New Republic, Tina Brown from Newsweek, my wife from CNN and ABC, and maybe one or two others like Tom Brokaw.” The purpose of this group is this – “The point is not to create news stories, but to ensure when these people deliver their inevitable assessments….” Collusion between sections of the press and political parties is not uncommon and the news that they put our will certainly not be really representative of the situation.

    I was also shocked to see the opposition party representative being shouted down by reporters, and parts of his speech being taken off the air!! In student venues, where there is a different opinion voiced against the left, the stage gets overrun at times by aggressive members of the left. 

  10. For all of you who support the Black Lives Matter ideology, please read Heather MacDonald’s editorial piece in today’s (Sept. 12, 2016) Wall Street Journal. Do something about black on black shootings, already up to 3,000 this year in Chicago, before you get consumed in the generally false ideology about BLM advocated by President Roth. Yes, there are rogue cops, but indifference to life exhibited daily in urban areas like Chicago, Baltimore, Milwaukee, etc. must be stopped.

  11. Here is something more to deal with!! Another one bites the dust. Google + is shutting down its livestream facility today. This was an uncensored platform for free speech!!! The timing is interesting, just a short time before the US elections. So much for free speech.

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