The Gathering Storm: Free Speech on Campus

A guest post by Nancy Thomas, Director of the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tisch College at Tufts University.
May 9, 2017

Rancor over how U.S. colleges and universities manage free speech is not new, but it seems to have reached a feverish pitch since Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th President of the U.S. in January. Some stories, like those about Charles Murray at Middlebury and Ann Coulter at UC Berkeley, attracted incredible attention. Others were all but overlooked, and commentary on the highly reported cases seem singularly negative to institutions and students. Here’s a chronological recap, with some thoughts about what colleges and universities might do next:

  • February 1, 2017: At UC-Berkeley, anarchists stormed and vandalized buildings in response to a planned speech by Breitbart’s former editor Milo Yiannopoulos. Citing safety concerns, the university cancelled the speech, provoking a barrage of criticism from free speech advocates (arguing for unfettered rights to free speech at public institutions) and even President Trump, who threatened to take away funding. Subsequent reports suggest that outsiders and some students used the radical tactic of a “black bloc,” resulting in $100,000 of physical damage at the university.
  • March 3: At Middlebury, students used chants (e.g., “Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Charles Murray, go away”) and then physical force in protest against speaker Charles Murray, best known for his co-authorship of The Bell Curve which tried to link intelligence and race. The national media focused on what Murray called “seriously scary” students, but not the administration’s “exemplary” response (same Murray tweet). Murray spoke at Virginia Tech several weeks later to a well-prepared institution that had held campus conversations about his upcoming visit and had set up an alternative teach-in across campus during the event.
  • March 28: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit decided Pompeo v. Board of Regents of the University of New Mexico, ruling in favor of professors who had been accused of discriminating against a student because of the student’s political views about lesbian lifestyles expressed in a written assignment. The 28-page opinion presents a comprehensive review of academic freedom and a professor’s right to set standards. In short, the student’s assertion that professors may not restrict the student’s speech based on opposition to the viewpoint expressed is “plainly incorrect.” In other words, the courts won’t meddle in pedagogical decisions based on accusations of political correctness. Read the full report from IDHE here, or listen on the Compact Nation Podcast.
  • April 4: The Association of American Colleges and Universities issued a statement, Free Expression, Liberal Education, and Inclusive Excellence, in part arguing that “there are circumstances under which the achievement of [the goals of educating students and advancing knowledge] entails restrictions on free expression.” The statement names the competing values at stake: a commitment to respect for others, free inquiry, and inclusivity as foundational to the free exchange of ideas.
  • April 25: Newseum president Jeffrey Herbst, former president of Colgate University, published a paper entitled Addressing the Real Crisis of Free Expression on Campus. Concerned that young people have “an alternative understanding of the First Amendment,” what he calls “the right to non-offensive speech,” (p. 2), he challenges colleges and universities to make “an absolutist case” for free speech. Herbst states that campuses must combat young adults’ intolerance of free speech by making the case that “minorities and alienated groups especially benefit from the full exercise of free speech and free expression” (p. 17).
  • April 28: As reported in Inside Higher Education, lawmakers in North Carolina and Wisconsin have introduced legislation that would require public universities to punish students who disrupt speech on campus and to require academics to remain neutral on political and social issues. The law is based on model legislation being promoted by the Goldwater Institute in other states.
  • Also last week, Berkeley attracted more coverage due to a back-and-forth with conservative commentator Ann Coulter. For those who missed the story, conservative students invited her to speak. The university requested that the talk be postponed until the fall. She refused and announced that she would show up to speak whenever she wanted, and then brought a lawsuit to back it up. The speech was rescheduled for Thursday of last week. On Wednesday, the students cancelled the invitation because of concerns over safety. Coulter called the day the speech was cancelled, “a sad day for free speech.”
  • And over this past weekend, 25 students from 20 colleges nationally gathered at the University of Chicago to try to start a movement in which students would become defenders of free speech on campus. On May 1, they issued this statement urging other students to defend all speech, even speech that is objectionable or hateful.

These reports raise many questions. Consider the proposals supporting unfettered speech. Will they hold up against the U.S. Supreme Court’s articulation and long-standing support of a university’s four freedoms: to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study (Sweezy v. New Hampshire, 354 U.S. 234, 1957)? Would these laws mean that people off campus would have more rights than students or that professors (or institutions) must entertain viewpoints unsupported by facts? What is the impact of the Pompeo ruling on speech outside of the classroom?

It’s time to bring members of the campus community together to talk about institutional principles and practices, who benefits from and the costs of “absolutist” free speech, the meaning of “values-neutral” teaching, the practical protections of academic freedom, who decides whether, when, and under what conditions speakers come to campus, and how extreme partisanship in public life is affecting campus communities.

At the very least, colleges and universities should not leave these matters to people least affected by institutional policies and practices, such as the media, politicians, and regents. These are matters of institutional culture and campus climate for political learning and engagement for all students.

Delve deeper into academic freedom and free speech with the Compact Nation Podcast

Nancy Thomas was recently a guest on the Compact Nation Podcast, where she and Campus Compact President Andrew Seligsohn discussed the relationship between democracy and higher education, as well as the fine line between free speech and academic freedom in the context of the recent ruling in the case of Pompeo v. Board of Regents of the University of New Mexico. 

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