An Argument That Hasn’t Been Answered

Kruth says Lukianoff cited two surveys; Ross says FIRE doesn’t need a survey. But the surveys Kruth cites are irrelevant because they do not ask the relevant question. I can’t tell whether Ross opposes a survey because she thinks the truth is obvious or because she thinks there is no way to know the truth. I differ on both.

Ross says the issue is not the “First Amendment” but “First Amendment values.” She has to: if all she cared about is the First Amendment, then she couldn’t object to speech codes in private universities because private universities’ speech codes are protected by the First Amendment. So she says she means values. But if private university speech codes are protected by the First Amendment, then why aren’t private university speech codes also protected by First Amendment values? Clearly they are—and for the reason I discussed in my first post (one of only two arguments I made, and it still has not received a response):

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 logic applies to universities, whose leaders should be allowed to experiment in the same way.

I want to offer a hypothetical for the group. A conservative student writes an article in the student newspaper opposing affirmative action, or condemning Islam, or denying the existence of a “rape culture,” or praising Donald Trump, or what have you. He is the only conservative who writes for the newspaper and one of the few (perhaps the only) outspoken conservative students on campus. A group of left-wing students, under cloak of anonymity, distribute vicious leaflets that call him various and sundry names. Their goal, likely to be successful because of students’ sensitivities to one another’s good opinion, is to shut down the expression of conservative opinion on campus. Question: should the university try to identify the authors of the leaflets and discipline them for violating a speech code that forbids “harassment”?

I say yes, for this reason, so ably articulated elsewhere:

Attempts to shield students from words, ideas, and people that might cause them emotional discomfort are bad for the students. They are bad for the workplace, which will be mired in unending litigation if student expectations of safety are carried forward. And they are bad for American democracy, which is already paralyzed by worsening partisanship. When the ideas, values, and speech of the other side are seen not just as wrong but as willfully aggressive toward innocent victims, it is hard to imagine the kind of mutual respect, negotiation, and compromise that are needed to make politics a positive-sum game.

Kruth, Ross, and Lukianoff are right to worry about campus speech but underestimate the complexities that universities face even if we ignore their many other responsibilities (above all, ensuring that students actually learn something in their studies, a responsibility that seems to have been lost in the debates over campus speech), and assume all they were supposed to do is advance “First Amendment values.”

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.