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.