A few weeks ago, Vox ran an article arguing, based mostly on a preliminary study by Georgetown University’s Free Speech Project, that the campus free speech crisis is overblown. The article, like many popular media pieces describing academic research, is a bit misleading and overstates the conclusions of the studies it cites. The article also downplays the scope of the campus free speech problem, even given the data. But the article does require those of us who care about free speech values to reflect on the true nature of the “campus free speech problem.” I think its true nature lies in chilling self-censorship, partially caused by the extent to which schools lack meaningful intellectual diversity and cultivate an atmosphere where social justice exists in tension with genuine academic pursuits.
According to the Vox article, there were 60 incidents over the past two years that can be labeled as true free speech incidents, such as where students were punished for speech or speakers disinvited, and there are “4,583 colleges and universities in the United States (including two- and four-year institutions).” From this, Vox writer Zach Beauchamp argues that “free speech crises are extremely rare events and don’t define university life in the way that critics suggest.” The piece also cites data showing that “left-wing professors were more frequently dismissed for their speech than conservative ones.” From this, Beauchamp argues that conservative views are not specifically unwelcome on campus, and that concerns about political correctness run amok on campus are manufactured.
Accepting the data, I disagree with both of these conclusions. First, the free speech incidents mark more than one percent of the total number of institutions of higher education. (More than one school may have triggered an incident, but I am averaging the incidents per school.) Imagine if school shootings occurred at over one percent of schools. Instead, there are 100,000 public schools in America, and “over the past quarter-century, on average about 10 students are slain in school shootings annually.” Of course, children being killed in schools is a much larger, and qualitatively different and more horrific, tragedy than a speaker being disinvited for her views. However, I submit that 60 free speech incidents in two years when there are only 4,583 institutions is something of a free speech epidemic, if you take free speech on campus seriously.
Additionally, the fact that liberal professors are more frequently fired for their views is not surprising, given that liberals far outnumber conservative professors. Conservative professors may still be more likely to be fired than liberals, even though more liberals are fired. In other words, conservative views may still be more unwelcome on college campuses; it’s just there are fewer conservatives to silence. Further, while many of the triggering incidents involve conservative provocateurs hoping to create unrest, many do not. And many students’ reactions to conservative academics reflect a truly illiberal views about engagement with ideas with which they disagree. Those espousing serious views about constitutional interpretation, and even about free speech, have been labeled as bigots, and their ideas have been shouted down. Serious conservative (and libertarian) ideas have become, in the minds of some, indistinct from bigotry. Although this may partially be a byproduct of the fact that many unserious conservative ideas are bigoted, the problem is also caused by how we educators approach intellectual engagement.
The Vox article is correct that both liberal and conservative views are censored in various ways on campus. When attitudes about censorship become cavalier, those in power will punish whatever speech is deemed uncomfortable, inappropriate, or offensive. There are also situations where professors act unprofessionally, and university action is based on a lack of rigor in one’s conclusions or professionalism in one’s expression. I believe, however, that the campus free speech (and free inquiry) problem is more subtle than the truly alarming heckling or firing incidents, although these incidents perpetuate the problem. The real problem is that the university has lost its way as a leader in forging new paths of intellectual discovery and allowing students to truly experiment with new ways of thinking.
To truly challenge orthodoxy, universities need to establish themselves as places where no inquiries are off of the table. Instead, universities have more and more incorporated their own visions of social justice as the dominant mission of the school, instead of intellectual growth and cultivation of independent, critical thinking. Students (and professors) who disagree with the approach of a particular school, or of a professor, often – although not always – feel it best to self censor instead of risk alienating professors (who have grade control over them) or their peers. Students decide not to invite certain speakers instead of risking an embarrassing event. Students absorb only one side of debates, or one view of particular data, and slowly learn to think and speak like everyone around them.
In many ways, it is incumbent upon students to bravely refuse to self censor. Students must take some responsibility for not sharing their own viewpoints and perspectives, and for allowing themselves to feel too uncomfortable to share. Self censorship is different than active suppression of speech from those with grade control or expulsion power. That said, self censorship is a serious problem that harms social discourse and intellectual growth, and, often, self censorship is somewhat encouraged by those in power.
Professors, especially those that teach from certain perspectives or use certain lenses for engaging with material, often do not even feel the need to provide their students with readings from a variety of viewpoints – instead proselytizing their own views. This leads students to also think it is acceptable to shout down a speaker from the American Civil Liberties Union as a white supremacist. (Shocking, but not surprising in a country so fractured and intolerant that classical liberalism, which has birthed a great deal of freedom and progress, can be labeled as “fancy racism.”) I strongly believe in academic freedom and allowing professors total control over their own syllabi. However, professors who teach classes where students must develop the worldview of the professor are far too common and far too accepted – especially if the professor has a particular viewpoint. To truly study how free speech values play out on college campuses, the extent of self-censorship due to the seeming intolerance of one’s professors and peers to certain ideas needs to be studied.
Equality and inclusion, important goals that also foster innovation in thinking, need not be at odds with promoting intellectual open-mindedness. However, the only way to truly harmonize these sometimes divergent goals is for universities to actively ensure that a variety of political views are represented among teachers and students. Students must also be reassured of something a professor of mine once said – “all views are welcome, as long as they are expressed respectfully.”