A Tale of Two Arguments about Free Speech on Campus

What are the terms and limits of the current debate?
By Michael C. Behrent

Graphic of bullhorn with lightning bolts coming out of it to symbolize sound; red background with faded look.

Which of the warring gods should we serve?—Max Weber

Freedom of expression, we are often told, is democracy’s lifeblood, the medium through which even the most contentious viewpoints can pass. Free speech, according to this view, is debate’s condition of possibility; it is not, in principle, meant to be the subject of debate itself. In times of crisis, however, foundational principles are called into question. The present seems just such a moment. Rather than provide the broader framework for disagreement, free speech itself has become a source of contention. Nowhere is this more true than on college and university campuses.

The current debate is rooted in controversies surrounding “political correctness” and campus speech codes dating back to the 1980s. In the past five years, however, these culture wars seem to have entered a new phase. In 2014, multiple prominent speakers were disinvited from campuses following student protests. Some of these incidents were reactions to the wave of police shootings of African Americans that gave birth to the Black Lives Matter movement. Around the same time, the terms microaggressions, trigger warnings, and safe spaces became increasingly mainstream, introducing a new vocabulary for defining acceptable limits on speech.

The AAUP has weighed in on such controversies in the past. Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure has long opposed the practice of disinviting outside speakers, holding that “the freedom to hear is an essential condition of the university community and an inseparable part of academic freedom.” Committee A has also opposed speech codes and demands for trigger warnings on academic freedom grounds.

More recently, the AAUP’s Committee on Government Relations has voiced opposition to efforts to “legislate” free speech. In its 2018 report Campus Free-Speech Legislation: History, Progress, and Problems, the committee, of which I am a member, took a critical look at efforts by the Goldwater Institute, a right-wing think tank, to push states to pass legislation based on a model “campus free-speech” bill it developed. Such legislation, the report found, represents an inappropriate incursion into campus policy. Moreover, when it mandates overly punitive or simplistic approaches to free speech, this legislation threatens to undermine the very principles it purports to uphold.

As the committee’s report on campus free-speech legislation notes, “many of the most difficult issues surrounding free speech at present are about balancing unobstructed dialogue with the need to make all constituencies on campus feel included.” In our intensely polarized times, such balancing of competing demands has become increasingly difficult; the question of free speech has become, ironically, an issue about which many on campus are increasingly indisposed to listen to one another.

While a diversity of opinion exists on free-speech controversies, two main threads of argumentation have come to define the debate. The claims made by various commentators and organizations can shed light on the terms and limits of that debate.

Campus Free-Speech Movement

Among the most outspoken of the groups sounding an alarm about free speech on campus is the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. FIRE, as it is usually called, touts its ideological diversity: FIRE president Greg Lukianoff describes it as a “unique organization” made up of “liberals, conservatives, libertarians, atheists, Christians, Jews, [and] Muslims” seeking to defend individual rights on campuses. The group does, however, receive significant funding from conservative groups, and many of its prominent members have ties to the Republican Party. Its system for rating colleges’ and universities’ free-speech standards—FIRE keeps tallies of disinvitations, “shout-downs,” speech codes, and other practices it opposes—is frequently invoked by conservative legislators and think tanks, as well as university administrators who curry their favor.

The lament about the current state of campus discourse frequently made by FIRE and groups on the political right invokes a recurring set of themes:

Support for free speech as a fundamental democratic value is declining on college campuses. This assertion draws on poll data indicating that today’s college students no longer regard free speech as an absolute right. In a recent article in the National Review (which closely follows campus free-speech controversies), David French, past president of FIRE, refers to a survey by Gallup and the Knight Foundation that reveals that while most students (89 percent) say that they believe in the importance of free speech, a strong majority (64 percent) favor, contrary to First Amendment jurisprudence, prohibiting “hate speech.” Conservative political writer Michael Barone, also writing for the National Review, finds it alarming that 61 percent of men and only 35 percent of women favor free speech over “inclusion and diversity”—a fact all the more troubling, he believes, in light of women’s increasingly dominant role in colleges and universities.

Colleges and universities have ceased to be champions of free speech and have become, rather, institutions that actively repress dissent. The 2017 Goldwater Institute report that included the model campus free-speech legislation cited above declares, “Freedom of speech, that cornerstone of our liberty and most fundamental constitutional right, is under siege on America’s college campuses.” Speech codes, free-speech zones, and trigger warnings are frequently cited as unacceptable limits on free speech. In this vein, the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, a conservative think tank in North Carolina, recently criticized biasincident reporting systems used on some campuses, arguing that “empowering students to report other students for offensive speech is unwise at best and dangerous for serious debate of uncomfortable and complex political issues.” Barone succinctly sums up this position: “College and university campuses have been transformed over the past half-century from the zone of our society most tolerant of free speech to the zone least tolerant.” Greg Lukianoff dubs this trend “unlearning liberty.”

Colleges and universities have taken sides on public controversies and pressured students and faculty to do the same, denying “viewpoint diversity” and promoting an academic “monoculture.” FIRE’s website states that at many colleges “students are expected to share a single viewpoint on hotly debated matters like the meaning and significance of diversity, the definition of social justice, and the impermissibility of ‘hate speech.’” The Martin Center notes that “free speech protections are necessary but not sufficient on a public campus; students should not feel pressured to conform to the political sentiment favored by administrators and professors.”

Some conservatives fear that colleges have shifted from protecting free speech to promoting liberal beliefs. The Martin Center cites new student orientation programs as a particular cause for concern: “Programs, skits, and speeches during freshman orientation can indoctrinate students and set the social climate,” teaching students that “if you don’t lean liberal, then your opinions are not welcome.” It also objects to campus-wide diversity and climate-change statements, noting, for example, that the Obama-initiated American Campuses Act on Climate Pledge is “a clear violation of institutional neutrality, likely to silence faculty and student critics of anthropogenic global warming.”

Anti-free-speech attitudes are often promoted by administrators with agendas other than the advancement of learning. On this point, conservatives’ contempt for big government and social engineering overlaps with their aversion to what they claim is intolerant campus discourse. If students behave badly, they maintain, it is because administrators who seek their approval—or docility—are so eager to accommodate them. FIRE worries about “mandatory ‘diversity training,’ in which students are instructed in an officially- approved ideology,” and “policies that require students to speak and even share approved attitudes on these matters or face disciplinary charges.” Though conservatives often make this critique, liberal-leaning faculty exasperated by ever-expanding administrative bloat sometimes become their fellow travelers. In his well-known book The Fall of the Faculty, political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg notes that administrators often champion policies designed to promote equality and diversity. Yet they do so, Ginsberg argues, because they fear student criticism and because these programs “help administrators bolster their own power vis-à-vis faculty,” who, because of their typically progressive views, “are unwilling to be seen as siding with putative oppressors.” In short: show me a campus hostile to free speech, and I’ll show you an institution awash with associate deans and vice provosts.

Hostility to free speech is grounded in a misguided and infantilizing view of human psychology. One of the striking features of those involved in the campus free-speech movement, intellectually speaking, is their frequent invocation of social science and psychology when disparaging policies that, in their view, shield students from divergent opinions. The most thorough attempt to couch the campus free-speech debate in psychological terms is in the collaborative work of FIRE’s Lukianoff and moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt. In 2015, they coauthored a much-discussed article in the Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” that served as the basis for a recent book with the same title. Lukianoff and Haidt identify several ill-advised psychological theories upon which they believe the current generation of college students has been weaned: “safetyism,” or an exaggerated concern with purging one’s environment of threats; “emotional reasoning,” which refers to the belief that what we feel to be true is true; and “us vs. them” thinking. These psychological fallacies are directly responsible, Lukianoff and Haidt maintain, for several theories that universities widely endorse: emotional reasoning leads to an exaggerated concern with “microaggressions” and efforts to disinvite allegedly threatening speakers; “us vs. them” thinking gives rise to the preoccupation with “intersectionality” in its more extreme forms and the practice of public shaming. Drawing on cognitive behavioral therapy, Lukianoff and Haidt claim that today’s campus culture nurtures immaturity and even pathologies, rather than fostering an environment that provides young people with the challenges and stressors they need to “mature into strong and capable adults, able to engage productively with people and ideas that challenge their beliefs and moral convictions.” Their book is arguably the campus free-speech movement’s most sophisticated manifesto.

Inclusion and Diversity

The position often identified with those on the other side of the campus free-speech debate can also be formulated as an ideal type. It consists less, however, in a point-by-point rebuttal of the arguments made by those affiliated with the campus free-speech movement than in a different argument altogether:

The real challenge that colleges and universities now face is not evolving attitudes toward free speech but changing demographics. A Pew Research Center survey from several years ago found that, while college enrollment increased for all racial and ethnic groups between 1996 and 2012, the number of Hispanic students had tripled (a 240 percent increase) and that of African Americans had grown by 72 percent, compared with 12 percent growth for whites. The Knight/ Gallup survey mentioned above shows that black students value diverse and inclusive environments over free-speech protections by 68 percent, whereas white students prefer free speech by 52 percent (with men doing so by 61 percent). Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive of PEN America, observed in a Washington Post editorial that “on many campuses, the students at the center of heated controversies are not,” as some conservatives likes to suggest, “the helicopter-parented offspring of the upper middle class” but “students of color” concerned with “eradicating persistent manifestations of discrimination that have outlasted decades of efforts at integration,” such as slurs, racist incidents, stereotyping, and segregation.

The benefits of free speech are unevenly distributed. In the wake of the Charlottesville events of August 2017, K-Sue Park, an attorney and fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law, argued in the New York Times that the First Amendment offers most of its benefits to the economically and racially privileged. A “well-funded machinery ready to harass journalists and academics has arisen,” she observed, “in the space beyond First Amendment litigation.” Some black professors who denounce white supremacy have, for example, faced physical threats, such as lynching and rape. “Could prioritizing First Amendment rights,” Park asks, “make the distribution of power in this country even more unequal and further silence the communities most burdened by histories of censorship?”

The “free-speech” rallying cry can be a diversion. In his analysis of several campus controversies from 2015, notably a student protest at Yale University targeting faculty who had characterized offensive Halloween costumes as a free-speech issue, New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb observed that many incidents that are framed as First Amendment issues first arise as attempts to enhance awareness of deep-seated problems relating to race. In such cases, bemoaning the denial of free-speech rights is a way of changing the conversation. Cobb writes, “The default for avoiding discussion of racism is to invoke a separate principle, one with which few would disagree in the abstract—free speech, respectful participation in class—as the counterpoint to the violation of principles relating to civil rights.”

While free speech is important, other democratic values are too. Though it would be difficult to imagine a democratic community that does not recognize and value freedom of expression, it is equally mistaken to assume that free speech alone defines the democratic values higher education institutions practice and cultivate. One such principle upon which colleges and universities depend is physical safety. Many so-called campus free-speech incidents are responses to the perceived threat of far-right groups, whose presence appears to have risen dramatically in the past few years. In June 2017, J. Richard Cohen of the Southern Poverty Law Center informed Congress of a “surge in campus organizing and recruitment by white nationalists,” including around 250 incidents on over 150 campuses involving the distribution of racist flyers by groups such as IdentityEvropa. As Nossel writes, “Of course students feel menaced when white supremacists march and chant in their college town or hang nooses on campus trees.”

Speech that poisons the communal well can reasonably be limited or forbidden. The political philosopher Jeremy Waldron succinctly articulated in his 2012 book The Harm in Hate Speech a view shared by many students and professors. Our society—and our universities— were founded, he argues, on a “public good of inclusiveness” that requires each group to accept that “society is not just for them.” Utterances that directly threaten inclusiveness are not simply, as First Amendment purists maintain, “thought we hate” but a calculated “disfiguring of our social environment” through messages conveying that “in the opinion of one group . . . members of another group are not worthy of equal citizenship.” Restrictions on this kind of speech are not simply regrettable derogations from the principle of free speech but positively necessary to democracy’s preservation.

Free-Speech Impasse

What these two sets of arguments have in common is that they are not merely theories of free-speech rights but statements about the ends of public life as such. In his classic essay “Two Concepts of Liberty,” the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin contrasted what he called “negative” and “positive” liberty. Negative liberty does not stipulate how we should live but simply delineates the outer boundaries of our freedom; positive liberty maintains, to the contrary, that freedom is justified insofar as it is fulfills some higher purpose. Historically, free speech has epitomized negative liberty: its robustness is measured by process (what can be said), not outcome (what is or should be said). In our polarized times, however, many critics on both the left and the right have incorporated free speech into their respective conceptions of positive liberty. This is more apparent on the left, which increasingly sees inclusivity and full citizenship rights as the end that expressive rights must ultimately serve. But the free-speech fundamentalism defended by the Right has metamorphosed into a form of positive liberty as well. When Lukianoff and Haidt contend that humans need challenges to develop, or when the alt-right provocateur Ben Shapiro tells student audiences that “facts don’t care about your feelings,” they are making more than procedural defenses of free speech: they are claiming that adversity is a positive good, a necessary condition for human growth. Not only is the unexamined life not worth living; it shouldn’t be allowed.

Many of those involved in the campus free-speech debate are thus pursuing what Max Weber called a “politics of ultimate ends,” or what Alexis de Tocqueville described as “political passions”: value commitments so exacting that they must stand in the way of more pragmatic considerations. Perhaps it is this very sense of moral urgency that leads both sides to disregard the tensions that characterize each position. Many conservatives insist that they are concerned with protecting everyone’s free-speech rights on college campuses. At the same time, in bemoaning the lack of conservative voices in colleges and universities and calling for “viewpoint diversity,” they embrace, at times, initiatives that sound suspiciously like affirmative action. Nor do conservatives seem sure how to reconcile their “adversity is good for you” free-speech message with business models that encourage colleges and universities to view students as consumers (who expect some coddling); indeed, public institutions have had to resort to this model as a result of cuts in state appropriations advocated by the Right. Some of those who are focused on building inclusive learning environments, meanwhile, seem tempted by a babywith- the-bathwater solution: if free speech is indelibly tainted by privilege, they wonder, has the time come to jettison the language of individual rights, to dismiss them, as did Marxists of yore, as “purely formal” compared to the urgent task of realizing the utopia of inclusivity? The role that free-speech protections, despite their real limitations, have played in protecting unprivileged opinion—religious dissent, pacifism, radicalism, and even civil rights—deserves some consideration before liberalism is tossed off as a relic from an unworthy past.

When one considers the terms of the free-speech debate, it is striking how far its assumptions about the nature of higher education diverge from those upon which the AAUP was founded. The AAUP’s 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure rests on the premise that political passions hail from society at large and that one of the university’s functions is to calm those passions through the sobering effects of good scholarship. Whatever the merits of the various arguments that now dominate campus discourse about free speech and inclusion, it is difficult to discern in them any hope that the university might, in the words of the 1915 Declaration, render public opinion “more circumspect,” “check the more hasty and unconsidered impulses of popular feeling,” and “train the democracy to the habit of looking before and after.”

So long as the broader culture continues to be so deeply polarized, a resolution to the campus freespeech debate in the immediate future seems highly unlikely. Neither position can really accommodate compromise: free-speech absolutism and the utopia of inclusivity leave little room for negotiation. Calls for civility entertain the fantasy that the root problem might magically disappear instead of proposing a practical solution. Perhaps the best one can hope for now is the return to what political scientists call forbearance—a willingness, in the name of preserving democratic practices, to refrain from maximizing one’s advantages over one’s opponents in ways that could result in their obliteration. Far from appeasing or tempering the warring factions of campus culture, calls for free speech, however understood and defined, seem likely, for the foreseeable future, to feed their rage. 

Michael C. Behrent is associate professor of history at Appalachian State University, a member of the AAUP’s Committee on Government Relations, and vice president of the North Carolina AAUP conference. His email address is [email protected]