State of the Profession: The Campus Free-Speech Movement and the AAUP

By Michael C. Behrent

Linguists and translators are familiar with the problem of “false friends”: words in different languages that sound similar yet have significantly different meanings. These words can be obstacles for nonfluent speakers of a language, as it is easy to confuse their meaning with cognates in one’s native tongue.

“False friends” is also a useful way of describing the relationship between the AAUP’s principles and the “campus free-speech” movement that has recently gained traction. Campus free-speech advocates use language that seems to invoke core AAUP principles. They argue that colleges and universities should not shelter students from upsetting ideas, that administrators should not cancel engagements by speakers who might offend campus constituencies, and that institutions of higher education must be protected as spaces for vigorous, albeit civil, disagreement.

The campus free-speech movement is not, however, driven by a commitment to the academic profession or the idea of the university. Its agenda is brazenly political. Consider the Goldwater Institute, which now spearheads the movement. This Phoenix-based think tank cut its teeth promoting causes such as “school choice.” It belongs to the State Policy Network, a coalition of think tanks that works aggressively with the American Legislative Exchange Council to promote conservative priorities in state legislatures.

In January 2017, the Goldwater Institute issued Campus Free Speech: A Legislative Proposal, by conservative activists Stanley Kurtz, James Manley, and Jonathan Butcher. The report assumes a tone of moral panic: “Freedom of speech is dying on our college campuses and is increasingly imperiled in society at large.” As evidence, it cites speaker bans, “shout-downs,” safe spaces, and restrictive speech policies.

Most important, the report includes a model bill for state legislatures. The first state to enact the report’s proposal was North Carolina: on July 31, 2017, the North Carolina Restore Campus Free Speech Act became law. Among other provisions, this law subjects individuals accused of violating the free-speech rights of others to strict disciplinary measures, expects universities to be neutral on public issues, and empowers the University of North Carolina’s systemwide board of governors to report annually on the state of campus free speech. The policy adopted by the board requires UNC campuses to make free-speech education part of student orientations, to create a range of sanctions for those who interfere with the free-speech rights of others, and to appoint “responsible officers” to monitor the policy’s enforcement.

So far, only North Carolina has approved the Goldwater Institute’s model bill. The University of Wisconsin’s board of regents has adopted a policy based on its provisions, however, and legislators in Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, and Wyoming have introduced Goldwater-based bills. At least half a dozen other states have adopted comparable bills not modeled on the Goldwater template.

The Goldwater bill bases noxious policy on seemingly reasonable principles that are valued by the AAUP. Like the Goldwater Institute, the AAUP opposes the practice of disinviting campus speakers. A 2007 statement by the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, Academic Freedom and Outside Speakers, states that “the freedom to hear is an essential condition of the university community,” adding, “the university is no place for a heckler’s veto.” The AAUP has also opposed speech codes. The 1992 statement On Freedom of Expression and Campus Speech Codes acknowledges the importance of inclusivity but concludes, “An institution of higher learning fails to fulfill its mission if it asserts the power to proscribe ideas.”

Yet these apparent similarities are misleading. Genuine freedom of speech is procedural in character: it exists where institutions and rules afford people a reasonable opportunity to exercise free-speech rights. The campus free-speech movement is concerned not with process but with outcome: its intention, as the Goldwater report puts it, is to bring about a new “balance of forces” on college campuses. The report also betrays a strong preference for a punitive approach to dealing with infringements of free-speech policies.

The campus free-speech movement and the AAUP are false friends: superficial similarity masks fundamental differences in aims. The challenge of resisting campus free-speech legislation consists in finding ways to reaffirm the principles it would seem to share with the AAUP while emphasizing that such legislation presents a considerable threat to higher education.

Michael C. Behrent is associate professor of history at Appalachian State University and a member of the AAUP’s Committee on Government Relations.