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What universities get wrong about free speech

When racist firebrands claimed a right to speak at various universities two years ago, free speech absolutists on the left and right rushed to their defense. The ACLU provided free legal assistance to neo-Nazis while President Donald Trump, who had asked for football players who express political opinions to “leave the country” or be fired for their speech and who has banned use of the term “abortion” in health clinics with federal funding, declared a national emergency in higher education and threatened to withhold federal funding unless his notion of free speech is upheld.

The University of Chicago issued a statement of principles on free speech that has been adopted by hundreds of universities and colleges. It proclaims that “universities exist for the sake of [free] inquiry.” Regrettably, the full statement is not only misleading but, by dint of what it fails to mention, incorrect. The university’s purpose is not unfettered debate of all ideas with the narrow exceptions of “expression that violates the law, […] falsely defames a specific individual [or] constitutes a genuine threat or harassment.” Universities exist for the purpose of advancing knowledge and finding new truths. By elevating “free and open inquiry” to be the university’s sole purpose, the University of Chicago turns the means of speech into the university’s end point. This failure to mention “truth” and “knowledge” is symptomatic of how academia has been manipulated in the speech debates. Once universities declare unfettered debate rather than the advancement of knowledge to be their principal purpose, they have lost to those who seek to undermine academia’s role as an arbiter of truth in society.

Viewing the speech conflicts as matters of hurt feelings and a choice between free speech and “an inclusive and welcoming society,” as defined by a much-cited set of annual studies of over 4,400 college students, also misses the point. The university’s mission depends on the participation of all qualified faculty and students on equal terms, which means without discriminating against anyone based on their identity. Conflicts over speech are not matters of negotiating competing claims of offense, nor of pitting speech against an “inclusive and welcoming” environment, but as violations of this principle of equal participation in the service of teaching and research.

Many of today’s students are unwilling to trade in equality for a hollow conception of free speech which protects hate speech that forces minorities to justify their participation in public life. If hate speech is the price we pay for free speech, the students recognize, the lion’s share of this price is paid by minorities and women. So when a speaker questions a particular group’s right to exist, the university ought to draw a line. All of academia should oppose such speech, as it routinely opposes falsehoods and settled ideas because deliberate falsehoods, now called “deep fakes,” undermine our capacity to determine the truth. If deep fakes are the price we pay for free speech, debates over political ads on social media illustrate, the lion’s share of this price will be paid by those with fewer resources.

When viewed through the lens of equality rather than offended feelings or the vague terms of inclusion and diversity, the campus controversies reveal the inextricable link between freedom and equality in the university and in society. Freedom of speech is an empty promise when granted only to those who have power, resources, and social standing, and aim to deprive others of their right to exist.

The campus controversies, which President Trump’s executive order and the University of Chicago guidelines are meant to end, are battles over equality of participation and over the university’s prerogative not to revive long-settled debates. When universities privilege a hollow concept of free speech or turn speech into their raison d’être, they compromise their legal obligation to guarantee the equal participation of all qualified students and faculty. They also abdicate their role as arbiters of truth, where free speech is not the end goal but essential to and in the service of their purpose of advancing knowledge.

The campus controversies are instructive because they show how free speech, when turned into a hollow concept, can be turned against the institutions of democracy and against the mission of the university it is meant to serve. In 1949, US Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson warned, in Terminiello v. Chicago, that the Constitution must not become a “suicide pact.” The wholesale defense of hate speech and deep fakes, as we are discovering around the world, threatens to undermine rather than protect democracy.

Free speech absolutists worry that any regulation of hate speech today will lead to the regulation of dissent tomorrow. Others think that exposure to hate speech builds resilience and if students are insulated from racism on an idyllic campus, they won’t be ready for real life. But just as the slippery slope is not inevitable, there is no evidence that hate speech builds character. There is proof, however, that hate can lead to murder in locations such as Christchurch, New Zealand, Oslo, Norway, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In our age when hate spreads with the click of a button, rigid speech absolutism in one place can cause death very far away. We need to allow as much speech as possible to let people shape their way of life but we must not turn free speech into a rigid piety that allows some to deprive others of that right.

When universities and self-appointed watchdog groups elevate “unfettered debate” above the university’s actual purpose, it is like arguing that the purpose of a representative democracy is to hold elections, when in truth elections are the means to achieve democracy. In today’s climate, when the truth seems up for grabs by anyone capable of producing viral content, universities must clarify their mission of advancing knowledge and finding new truths by means of speech and according to protocols of intentional debate, scientific discovery, professional expertise, and established methodologies. To uphold their crucial function of arbiters of truth, universities must counter efforts to undermine this prerogative in the name of free speech absolutism and politically motivated calls for viewpoint diversity. Instead of losing sight of their purpose of finding the truth, universities should foster deeper conversations about the interlocking principles of freedom and equality that can become the premise for speech that is truly free and open to all.

Featured image credit: “Man standing infront of group of people” by Priscilla Du Preez via Unsplash.

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