On September 17th, 2018, the Political Theory Institute (PTI) hosted the event “Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech,” at American University in Washington, D.C. The event featured Dr. Keith Whittington, Professor of Politics at Princeton University, who has written extensively about free speech on campuses in his new book, Speak Freely. In recent years, college campuses have become the front line of renewed conflict about how to conduct intellectual inquiry and how to grapple with ideas. A core idea of western liberalism is that it is good for people in a free society to openly express competing viewpoints. Representative democracy requires this from its citizens. Entertaining different and even outlandish ideas is a prerequisite for debating policy and governance. Dr. Whittington makes the case that a university, as an institution of learning, has a unique responsibility to teach and uphold this practice.
Outspoken public speakers across the right—from Ben Shapiro of the Daily Wire, to author Ann Coulter, to former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, to libertarian social scientist Charles Murray—have faced threats and actual violence for daring to accept an invitation to speak at universities. Dennis Prager and Adam Carolla teamed up with CRC’s film production company, Dangerous Documentaries, to produce the film No Safe Spaces, which covers the campus free speech controversy and is scheduled for a 2019 release.
The problem of student speech shutdowns is older than the so-called Age of Trump. Students from my alma mater, American University, tried to silence a 2007 speech by George W. Bush White House Senior Advisor Karl Rove, attempting to make “citizen’s arrests” and lying down on the street in front of his car to prevent him from leaving campus.
The issue of rejecting speakers and ideas that are uncomfortable is much larger than isolated incidents of violence perpetrated by kids with too much time on their hands. It is about freedom of thought versus maintaining the semblance of “security” fostered by dogmas and ideologies. Some may argue that these speakers are just too extreme (“Hate speech is not free speech!”), or they conflate disrupting a speaker they dislike with the First Amendment right to protest. Whatever the excuse, what is clear is that there are competing values at play on university campuses.
The first thing I noticed upon entering the PTI event space was that it was packed with a crowd of between 60 and 70 people, despite heavy rainfall. Unlike many of the usual events at American University, which ordinarily appeal to one specific audience, the PTI event was a healthy mix of students and professors who wanted to learn and discuss an issue which directly affects their day-to-day lives.
As an American University graduate I can tell you that university speech policies really are as problematic as they appear in news stories. The university straddles the fence between adhering to its stated principles to allow free expression of ideas and restricting ideas it deems unacceptable. American University is a private institution and not legally obligated to adhere to the First Amendment, but since AU has adopted the Chicago Principles of Free Expression—a commitment to free speech and expression widely regarded as the gold-standard for promoting academic freedom—the university has a moral duty to uphold free speech and academic freedom. Some schools do not prioritize (or even affirmatively restrict) free speech, preferring other values. (When asked, Professor Whittington acknowledged such educational institutions have a right to limit free expression, but he doesn’t see them as true universities he would ever want to join.)
While AU allowed my student group, the AU chapter of Young Americans for Liberty (YAL), to host an extremely controversial speaker in 2015, after I became an executive board member, the University administration selectively enforced arbitrary and ambiguous regulations, such as the need for prior approval before a club can post flyers, due to an administrator’s personal bias.
For example, while the AU Club Council (AUCC) requires formal documentation and must approve of an event if a club needs Council funding and technically, clubs must fill in the application even if the event doesn’t require school resources other than the already reserved room, if the event is small and the speaker comes for free, most clubs choose to forgo the application as a mere formality and AUCC normally doesn’t mind. However, our YAL chapter received heated emails scolding us when we held similar small events. This was such a persistent issue that we even had to prepare for the possibility that the AUCC administrator who sent those emails would spontaneously arrive at our events and shut them down.
The PTI event was not a simple listening session of aggrieved students and professors sharing stories of dealings with progressive “social justice” advocates. Professor Whittington, perhaps channeling his role as an Ivy League professor, made a case for why free speech matters on university campuses today, and why free discourse has become so fraught.
Universities were not originally made as a place for open discourse according to Whittington, but they assumed that responsibility over time. Like the child who grows up to assume adult responsibilities, between the late 18th and early 19th centuries, institutions of learning such as Princeton University grew from places that trained future ministers into an (ideally) open environment where ideas were free to be discussed and challenged.
Whittington attributes the change in part to Daniel Gilman, the first president of Johns Hopkins University, who very clearly supported free speech in his inaugural address in 1876:
In speaking of your freedom from sectarian and political control, you expressed to me a hope that this foundation should be pervaded by the spirit of an enlightened Christianity; while you proposed to train young men for the service of the State and the responsibilities of public life, you hoped the University would never engage in sectional, partisan and provincial animosities. In both these propositions I now as then express my cordial and entire concurrence.
A university has a unique responsibility to create an environment with the free exchange of ideas—especially controversial ideas. Whittington does say there are other reasons for free speech in society, such as holding government accountable to the people or allowing individuals to express their grievances, but the campus is a specialized place to test arguments. Whittington also made the point that even if we were to concede that some ideas are out of bounds, it is nearly impossible to trust a censor to know which ideas are unacceptable.
For example, Whittington referenced an instance when Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) tried to ban the Gay Alliance of Students from its campus in 1974. It took two years in court for the group to succeed on First Amendment grounds. The student group argued that they had a right to speak on campus even if it was unpopular or deemed immoral at the time. Jonathan Rauch, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and writer for The Atlantic, said the same thing when he spoke at American University in November 2017.
Whittington argued that it has always been a struggle to maintain freedom of thought, but over time, the groups objecting to certain speech have changed. Previously it was VCU and the religious right blocking the speech of LGBT groups; currently, leftist activists block the speech of conservatives. Today, if anything, silencing has become a worse issue with the rise of so-called “microaggression reporting,” whereby any university member can report someone for saying or doing seemingly innocuous things that communicate alleged “unconscious bias.” I know this because my conservative friends and I had to deal continually with just such complaints from people we didn’t know.
While the public supports free speech overall, Whittington made the salient point that people can waver when it comes to specific issues. He reminded the attendees that whichever group is in power will likely try to limit discussions contrary to its viewpoint—whether on campus or in society at large.
While most of the room appeared to agree with Whittington’s central thesis, many students and professors asked thorough and challenging questions. There are limits on free speech, especially when it comes to threatening bodily harm to others, but what about psychological harm caused by cruel words? One American University professor even discussed how a key caveat to free speech working is that everyone participating in the discussion needs to feel safe enough to speak.
Dr. Whittington acknowledged the potential harm of unlimited speech, though he sees the treatment as worse than allowing bad speech. A professor has the responsibility to facilitate dialogue as well as exercise reasonable judgment to make sure a diverse group can come together in open discussion. Students, likewise, have a responsibility to be respectful and disagree with each other in constructive ways.
When I arrived at college, I was used to living in a left-wing community (Princeton Township, New Jersey). I witnessed outright political hostility—a friend of mine was accosted for wearing a Republican Party button—one reason I never showed open support for my beliefs. So, I knew how important it was to consider who was listening to me before I gave my honest opinion about certain topics. It was a harder adjustment for others. I still remember how strange it was to hear, during an election, one of the candidates for president of the College Republicans speak about how, as a freshman, he was brought to tears after suddenly finding himself surrounded by people who called him bigoted just for being a conservative; for me, that was commonplace.
There are few scenarios more distressing than the need to hide one’s deeply held beliefs out of fear of possible reprisals. Many are guilty of operating in bad faith, assuming the worst of those who disagree with commonly held political or moral positions. As Whittington said, most people have a general belief in free speech, but individuals tend to favor selective censorship when certain values rub against this fundamental civil liberty. With a rising number of young adults enrolling in college every year, we all must ask ourselves what is the role of a university? As a student who has had his beliefs challenged constantly, I believe higher education should cultivate students’ reason and expand their minds to new ideas, by encouraging free discourse—even if it may be jarring to encounter opposition. Such an education results in students who are well rounded and better prepared for their place in society.