Campus Free Speech Problems Are Less Than Meets the Eye

I don’t like political correctness any more than Greg Lukianoff does, but he exaggerates the problem and unfairly blames universities when the problem really lies with students.

There are 5,300 colleges and universities in the United States. They educate approximately 20 million students every year. It is hardly surprising that campus administrators who enforce the rules blunder from time to time. In most of Lukianoff’s examples, the student (or professor, in one case) engaged in speech that was on the margin of other activities that are appropriately regulated, such as distributing leaflets and threatening students or faculty. The universities overreacted, but errors are unavoidable. He does not cite an example of a university punishing a student for merely expressing a view that people regard as offensive—Holocaust denial, or white supremacy, or criticism of Muslims, or opposition to affirmative action, or whatever. Moreover, nearly all of Lukianoff’s examples of quasi-censorship take place outside of the university’s core education and research mission. We’re talking about students complaining about how they are treated outside of class, not in it, often at the hands of other students or student organizations.

As a law professor, I teach students who are graduates of colleges all around the country. I’ve taken to quizzing them about political correctness and censorship in their colleges. None of them have recounted classmates being punished by administrators for expressing their views. None of them have said that they refrained from expressing a view because of fears that the university would punish them. The few anecdotes I have heard from my students are, like Lukianoff’s, borderline cases where a student expresses views in a way that may threaten campus order, safety, and security. (One such example involved a student who made a bonfire of his books—apparently to express his sentiments about his education, but in a way that understandably caused concern to administrators.) The major threat to free discussion on campus is the ideological conformity of students—who are afraid of losing friends and being hassled by peers if they express ideologically idiosyncratic views—and not university administrators, who are mostly passive and remote.

While it is true that most universities have speech codes, these codes are designed not to stifle but to enhance discussion by discouraging students from being rude to each other. One of the oddities of the American university is that students are expected to live together and not just attend classes together. Universities’ understandable but obsessive genuflection to the god of diversity means that students of radically different backgrounds and attitudes are thrown together. The idea is that they are supposed to learn from each other; the reality is that everyone must constantly be on his guard because it is so easy to inadvertently offend someone from a different background by innocently expressing one’s opinion. While Lukianoff and I can retreat from the public square to the privacy of our homes if we find public debate offensive, students who live in dorms have no such option. This is why students so frequently self-segregate by joining fraternities and clubs, and by moving off campus when allowed to. In this way, they act no differently from most Americans who self-segregate by moving to homogenous neighborhoods.

But self-segregation within the university can go only so far, and this is why universities insist on the authority to punish students who “harass” each other—meaning who fail to be reasonably polite to each other. This is regulation of manners, not of speech or opinion—in the spirit of time, place, and manner regulations that governments are permitted to impose even under the strict doctrines of First Amendment law. University speech codes (at least, in private universities) go farther because campus life is different from public life. If a white student insists on telling his black roommate that affirmative action is wrong, I doubt any administrator would consider this a violation of speech codes. If instead he calls his roommate racial epithets, I suspect the university would intervene. I don’t know whether Lukianoff would regard this as a violation of the white student’s freedom of speech, but it would be ridiculous to require the black student to tolerate this boorish behavior.

Universities approach this problem in many ways. As Lukianoff mentions, some universities leave students to themselves; others use speech codes. The speech codes vary tremendously, as do the punishments that are meted out for violations. The perplexing thing about Lukianoff is that he dogmatically insists that all universities follow exactly the approach he advocates.

While Lukianoff may be right that an everything-goes approach may ultimately be best for students, he provides no evidence for this view, and this is because there is no such evidence, one way or the other. It’s certainly not the approach used in the classroom. Teachers almost never permit students to express themselves in a hostile, rude, or insensitive way. This is not some new-fangled, PC-inflected innovation; anyone who has taught a class or been a student knows that willfully obnoxious behavior interferes with learning. Offensive speech gets students riled up and deters them from taking unfamiliar ideas seriously.

The regulation of speech outside the classroom is trickier. Various forms of speech regulation may be appropriate for different groups of students. Universities have figured this out, and in fact there is great diversity in how universities regulate speech. Many religious universities, for example, require, or at least say they require, students to keep theologically disreputable views to themselves. Some forbid cursing. While I wouldn’t have wanted to attend such institutions, I see no reason why students shouldn’t attend them if they want to.

The intellectual basis of freedom of speech is epistemic humility—the notion that since we cannot be confident that we know the truth, we need to allow people to debate it. But then we must also acknowledge that we don’t and can’t know the best rules for promoting those debates. That’s why, in fact, the First Amendment allows people to form collectivities like newspapers, think tanks, and political parties where the institution itself embodies a certain viewpoint, and all who participate in the institution can be required to accept it (or at least pretend to accept it). We allow liberal newspapers and conservative newspapers rather than requiring all newspapers to publish diverse political views because we think that restrictions of speech within institutions may promote freedom of speech across institutions. The same logic applies to universities, whose leaders should be allowed to experiment in the same way.

Lukianoff doesn’t see this because he imagines that free speech is a good in itself. In fact, freedom of speech is a means to an end, and our understanding of free speech must be derived from the end that we seek to achieve. In politics, that end is good governance and political competition. In education, that end is—education. The recent student demands for limitations on freedom of speech—demands that, as he concedes, put him in a “somewhat difficult position”—flummox Lukianoff because free speech is on both sides of the issue. Should he support the students because they exercise freedom of speech, or oppose them because they want to restrict it? He resolves this contradiction by, in effect, arguing that the students should be free to demand speech restrictions as long as universities refuse to submit. But that’s a cop-out. If you know in advance that no one will take seriously your speech, your right to freedom of speech is empty.

However, in the Atlantic article that he coauthored with psychologist Jonathan Haidt, Lukianoff does make an argument against restrictions on campus speech based on a specific educational philosophy. Haidt and Lukianoff argue that efforts by students to restrict speech will, if accepted by universities and embodied in speech codes, cause psychological harm to students, and interfere with their education, by protecting them from dangerous ideas rather than forcing them to confront and understand them. The authors may be correct, but it is important to understand that they are taking a specific and contestable position on how universities should teach and how campus life should be regulated. The only way to know whether they are right or wrong is to allow universities to try different approaches, so that we can use evidence to determine which approach is best. Lukianoff the free speech advocate and Lukianoff the educational philosopher are on opposite sides of the question.



Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Greg Lukianoff reviews the recent media attention to cases of speech suppression on college campuses. He agrees that they are troubling, but notes that they aren’t all that new: Political correctness and expansive speech codes were widespread in the 90s, and most of those codes never disappeared. Lukianoff traces their origins to the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which has significantly confused administrators and students about the prevailing law in these matters. Administrators in particular want expansive speech codes because such codes shield them from legal liability. Lately, though, students have begun to demand them too, in the hope of suppressing hate speech and so-called microaggressions.

Response Essays

  • Speech codes may sound menacing, but they are actually designed to enhance speech, writes Eric Posner. No classroom instructor tolerates rudeness or disruption of the learning environment, and speech codes are an outgrowth of this laudable practice. Administrators, too, are less guilty than it may seem by relying on Greg Lukianoff’s anecdotes: They have not been punishing students merely for their speech. Universities face a difficult task, in that they must accommodate highly diverse student cohorts with wildly divergent ideas, all while preserving an atmosphere of collegiality and of learning. It is inevitable that mistakes will arise. These mistakes, though, do not indicate any sinister trend about American education or public life. Would an absolutist free-speech policy do better at educating college students? That’s an empirical claim, and one that Lukianoff does not even try to substantiate.

  • Catherine J. Ross argues that the issue of free speech on college campuses is far more nuanced than either side seems willing to admit. We have become much more aware of the problem than previously, thanks in part to social media and the efforts of advocates like Greg Lukianoff, who rightly points out some troubling examples here. And yet there is room for exaggeration: Eric Posner is certainly onto something, she writes, that Lukianoff exaggerates the severity of the problem. Ross searches for evidence in both directions and concludes that a chilling effect has clearly been at work in recent years. Professors should never feel as though their students scare them; students should not be scared of one another. The crux of the matter, as she puts it, is that liberals have recently been divided: Some have kept to their traditional First Amendment commitments, while others have come to prefer equality in many instances where equality and freedom of expression appear to conflict.