BoLockwood
Source: BoLockwood

So by now you probably know that the conservative social scientist, Charles Murray, was shouted down and not afforded the opportunity to speak on his ideas at a recent incident at Middlebury College. You may also know that he and his campus hosts were chased down by a mob — with one faculty member experiencing serious injury.

Welcome to the new age.

Earlier this week, (according to a story in Inside Higher Education) a psychology professor from the University of Toronto, Jordan Peterson, was shouted down and disallowed the opportunity to speak at an invited panel at McMaster University, also in Ontario.

Yup, that’s Canada — it is spreading.

Perhaps the most conspicuous statement on this issue that has me concerned is found in an article by Stanley Fish published in the highly reputable Chronicle of Higher Education. His article, titled "Free Speech is Not an Academic Value," lays out a framework for seeing the academy as being entirely not about freedom of inquiry but, rather, being about the differential expression of better ideas over worse ideas. While there is a splash of merit in his treatise (I will say that it is well-written ...), the bottom line of this perspective is simply terrifying and, to my mind, has the potential to push universities to be even more pecking-order-based than they are already, with huge rifts between the privileged intellectual haves and the marginalized intellectual have-nots.

In his treatise, Fish writes: "... it is the business of the university to silence voices." And he really seems to mean it. What’s more, I think that Fish’s perspective actually captures the ethos among academics these days when it comes to allowing for a plurality of perspectives and ideas to be voiced on campus. As far as I can tell, his perspective is not a fringe viewpoint — as I look more and more closely at this issue, I fear that Fish speaks for a large contingent of academics in our modern day.

Is Freedom of Speech on Campus Complicated?

I have to say, as someone who is hugely dedicated to his work as an academic, I have been engaging in many conversations with various people — all over the world — on this topic. I have a lot of terrific and well-meaning colleagues who essentially argue that this issue is complicated — to the point that some very bright and well-intended people refuse to renounce the events of Middlebury.

To their credit, they bring up important issues — and if you are following this topic in the news, you may know some of them. Some issues they bring up pertain to (a) whether campuses should be allowed to invite speakers who have proven to be offensive and/or racist; (b) the effects that offensive speakers may have on vulnerable young students; (c) whether campuses should be required to hold special and extended sessions for critical inquiry and dialogue when “controversial” speakers attend events; (d) the fact that free speech has historically been disproportionately appropriated such that individuals from powerful classes have unfairly been afforded more free speech opportunities than individuals from other classes have been afforded — and that supporting blanket free-speech policies, then, is inherently unfair and is in effect a mechanism of supporting the status quo.

These concerns have merit — and I owe much to my thoughtful colleagues from near and far for helping me see these points. This is a benefit of free dialogue and exchange in an academic environment — and I think these points are useful to think about within an academic community. They do help me in better understanding the issue at hand — and, in fact, I am working with a broad group of intellectual to hold a series of panel discussions on these issues in the Fall.

We need to take these important issues into account. This said, we also need to ensure that freedom of speech and inquiry on campus remain protected given their foundational nature to the work of the university. I am not convinced that free speech on campus truly needs to be seen as all that complicated.

According to a statement on free speech of the American Association of University Professors:

“On a campus that is free and open, no idea can be banned or forbidden. No viewpoint or message may be deemed so hateful or disturbing that it may not be expressed.”

That’s really pretty simple, actually.

And thus, from this simple perspective, shouting down speakers, disinviting speakers, etc., is out of sync with the principles of the AAUP. And it is out of sync with the principles of many institutions and organizations that bear on academic issues in fact. So I am not (yet) alone.

One of the most high-profile statements on this issue is found on the website for Princeton University’s James Madison Program. Here, renowned scholars Robert P. George and Cornel West (who vary dramatically from each other in terms of their politics) write:

“Sometimes students and faculty members turn their backs on speakers whose opinions they don’t like or simply walk out and refuse to listen to those whose convictions offend their values. Of course, the right to peacefully protest, including on campuses, is sacrosanct. But before exercising that right, each of us should ask: Might it not be better to listen respectfully and try to learn from a speaker with whom I disagree? Might it better serve the cause of truth-seeking to engage the speaker in frank civil discussion?”

Maybe my mind is simple, but this statement makes good sense to me.

How about this for a straightforward policy: In a university setting, where diversity of intellectual perspectives fill the air, people representing all kinds of backgrounds and ideas should be welcome to express their ideas. And if you don’t like someone’s ideas, you are under no obligation to accept them. And you are fully allowed to respectfully argue against them.

Is the Purpose of the University to Silence Voices?

When I read Fish’s article, I have to say I shuddered. If the purpose of the university is to silence voices, then I want nothing to do with it. This is not the university that I signed up to join. This is not the university that I know and love. This is not the university that I stand for.

Freedom of expression and freedom of inquiry are foundational to any and all conceptions of academia. And any movement toward making the university all about only allowing elite privileged individuals to have voice is a movement that is, in my mind, fully against the most foundational aspects of academia.

The current trend toward seeing the university as a place to silence voices needs to be examined with the most critical of eyes.

Bottom Line

Something weird is happening on our college campuses. People who don’t hold the "right” views are not being allowed to speak. And people are literally getting injured and property damage related to this issue is emerging from coast to coast. And it’s now spreading to Canada.

What is going on? It's hard to say. But as a long-standing academic and as a lifelong advocate of free speech, I think this issue needs genuinely open dialogue and examination. If the university is about to become a place that is explicitly about silencing voices, as Stanley Fish suggests, count me out.

Freedom of expression on college campuses has been framed as having all kinds of complicated elements to it. I don’t think that has to be the case. Universities are places that embrace diversity, freedom of expression, and freedom of inquiry. When it comes to speech on campus, I say this: let freedom ring.

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