I decided to write my new book Free Speech and Liberal Education after hearing about the violent disruption of Charles Murray’s speech at Middlebury College in early 2017, an eruption heard around the academic world. Several other speaker disruptions and intimidations followed in Middlebury’s wake. A leader at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. had previously asked me if I cared to write something for Cato about higher education, so I got back in touch with him about a year later with an idea for a book about what was transpiring on the academic free speech front, and why constructive responses are imperative. After reviewing a proposal, Cato signed me to a contract.
The disruptions that sparked my interest were manifestations of deeper political, administrative, and cultural forces permeating higher education. New speech-inhibiting programs and actions had begun proliferating in American higher education, including dis-invitations of speakers for ideological reasons ( a species of “cancel culture”); policies and actions covering so-called “micro-aggressions;” the use of “trigger warnings” for class readings and related materials; increasing sensitivity and diversity training sessions that are often one-sided and ignore intellectual diversity as an important element of differences in a pluralistic polity; and ubiquitous “bias reporting” systems that encourage anonymous complaints against campus citizens for saying things that any person happened to find offensive, insensitive, or just politically incorrect. I decided to add my voice to that of many others who were raising genuine concerns.
A distinctive aspect of Free Speech and Liberal Education is my emphasis upon different aspects of the issue: empirical; strategic; historical; and normative.
The new species of speech inhibitions are the product of a host of cultural factors inside and outside of higher education, including student pressure; the burgeoning of administrative oversight in higher education that is dedicated to the “therapeutic” project of protecting student sensitivity and emotional “safety” (University of Kent social theorist Frank Furedi has written that “political correctness” has been replaced by “emotional correctness” in higher education); and political and linguistic theories that have eviscerated the long-standing First Amendment distinction between “speech” and “action,” making it easier to claim that disfavored discourse is tantamount to discrimination in many quarters.
As students of higher education’s academic freedom conflicts know, the latest wave of affronts is not really something new under the academic sun. Higher education in the United States and other liberal democracies has been dealing with pressures from so-called “progressive censorship” – censorship in the name of promoting progressive causes and protecting such movements from criticism – for several decades now, beginning with the so-called “speech code movement” of the late 1980s and 1990s.
This upping of the censorship ante arose after what I depict in the book as a pause – relatively speaking – in repression from roughly 2000 to 2010. The interregnum came after many courts had invalidated the codes in the United States on First Amendment and campus policy grounds, and critics had pushed back against them, including the free speech and academic freedom movement I helped to lead at my school, the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But when I mentioned this ostensible intermission to a colleague, he replied ominously, “Political correctness has not died. It has just metastasized.” As time was soon to tell, he was right.
In many respects, the new policies represented different tools to inhibit speech without having to resort to formal speech codes, which were rightly perceived as conspicuous forms of censorship. Accomplish through the back door what you can’t through the front door. The very term “speech code” rings with censorious meaning, enabling code opponents to win the battle of language in judicial settings. The new policies have different labels, and they do not necessarily involve overt sanctions. But as practiced, their objective and effect is often similar: to chill discourse in a manner that can foster a pall of orthodoxy regarding public viewpoints. As I point out in my chapter entitled “Major Threats to Academic Free Speech,” bias-reporting systems frequently boil down to promoting anonymous complaints about comments in class and elsewhere that the most sensitive or ideologically driven listeners find objectionable for the most subjective of reasons. Portland State University’s bias-reporting program, for example, encourages reporting not only properly sanctionable harassment and threats, but also “physical, spoken, or written acts of abuse, insensitivity, [and] lack of awareness.” (My italics.) Across town, the University of Portland urged students to report “incidents of discomfort” not only to campus administrators, but to “the police.” (My italics.) Can intellectual honesty thrive in a classroom with such Damocles Swords hovering over everyone’s head?
So one objective of Free Speech and Liberal Education is to portray the new ways in which campus activists and administrative leaders are engaging in censorship through new means that claim to be less punitive than the old speech codes. In this task, the book adds to a growing literature in books, articles, and opinion pieces. As I write in the Introduction, “suppression often takes place beneath the radar screen of public notice.”
But the book has three other major objectives based on my research and my long career as a professor and a participant in academic free speech politics at Wisconsin and more broadly. First, I strive to be as empirically accurate as possible about the nature and extent of the problem. Higher education, after all, is a vast domain, consisting of thousands of institutions in the United States alone. Not surprisingly, an honest look finds examples of resistance to censorious actions along with many cases of transgression. Getting this “empirical question” as right as possible – it is not possible to obtain a perfect picture because of the inherent complexity and fluidity of the subject matter – is necessary for reasons of intellectual honesty and of strategic practicality. We need to know what is wrong and why. And we need to know how to preserve what is right and how to fight back against what is not right.
In this spirit, I depict the status of free thought in American higher education as “embattled.” As such, now is the time to draw on the promising examples of resistance and to broaden their reach as much as possible. The battle is not lost. But it will be lost if those who know better do not organize and build appropriate and effective counter-movements.
As noted, empirically speaking it is not enough to just look at such overt policies and actions as speech codes and speech cancellations. One must look at culture and the administrative shadow university as well. Northwestern’s Laura Kipnis points the way in her book Unwanted Advances (2017), in which she chronicles her own harrowing experience of being investigated for sexual harassment by federal Title IX bureaucrats for simply writing an op-ed in the Chronicle of Higher Education that criticized the excessive aspects of “rape culture” ideology on campus. Having become a contact person for others who had found themselves wrongly or questionably accused, Kipnis discovered a shadow world of accusation and inhibition that she had not known existed. I quote her in my book: “I was introduced to an astonishing netherworld of accused professors and students, rigged investigations, closed-door hearings, and Title IX officers run amok. This was a world I’d previously known nothing about, because no one on campus knows anything about it… And those in the know are terrified to speak out.”
In a separate empirical chapter, I discuss at length the findings of several recent national surveys of campus opinion regarding free speech, its limits, and its importance in comparison to campus sensitivity. Perhaps surprisingly, the surveys tend to show clear majorities of students, faculty, and college presidents favoring broad free speech rights and open inquiry, with the exception of many students’ favoring restrictions on “hate speech,” which is often vaguely defined. These surveys suggest that the problem boils down to galvanizing and giving voice to what could be “silent majorities” on campus who disfavor speech restrictions but are reluctant to speak out because of the pressures of campus culture and policies. I analyze this research and apply it to my suggestions for strategic action (see next paragraph). I also mention political scientist Samuel Abrams’ survey of college administrators, which suggests how problematic this pivotal sector of higher education has become to the fate of campus freedom.
My second objective beyond presenting the dangers and examining their causes is to present practical strategic advice on how to proceed based on my own experience and research. In my concluding chapter I lay out in considerable detail examples of internal campus mobilizations by students and faculty members that have made a difference at various schools, as well as a blueprint or primer on points and tactics to stress. My examples are drawn from the United States, but I would have added to the value of my analysis by including some international examples, of which the Canadian Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship is an excellent example.
I also discuss actions that conscientious administrators can undertake in the policy domain, as well as broader political actions. I am wary of enlisting outside political assistance except when absolutely necessary; but such broadening of the conflict can enlist needed support against entrenched local power, as happened in the American Civil Rights Movement. The press can be an invaluable ally in this respect.
In the concluding chapter and throughout the book I stress a four-step strategic approach to the problem. As I write in the Introduction, “upholding higher education’s responsibility to nourish and defend intellectual freedom requires four essential tasks or obligations: knowledge of the principles and requisites of intellectual freedom, a knowledge that includes grasping the proper limits of freedom; commitment to those principles and basics; the will to act in their defense in the face of the pressures that arise in an imperfect world; and, finally, giving priority to those obligations, which is of central importance to higher education because its distinctive task is the pursuit of truth.”
The theme of proper prioritization is essential to the book. Higher education has become a complex enterprise that now encompasses many activities and pressures, highlighted by new claims about “social justice” and diversity. It is easy for its classic mission to be lost like a tree in a vast forest. So this mission must be given commitment and priority when it encounters pressure. In many respects, Free Speech and Liberal Education is a sort of passion play featuring the struggles and vicissitudes that the central mission must overcome in order to prevail. Leaders need a moral compass in order to navigate through turbulent waters.
But what is this central mission? In the normative heart of the book, I discuss this seminal question in three different chapters: “What Is the University?”; “Free Speech and Academic Freedom;” and a chapter on why academic and intellectual freedom matters for citizenship in a liberal democracy, entitled “Pulling It All Together: The Campus, the Good Life, and the Republic.” In a nutshell, the university’s primary mission – that which gives it its distinctive meaning and rights in a social contract with liberal democratic orders – is the pursuit of truth through the exercise of the intellectual virtues of honesty and commitment to reason, and adherence to academic freedom. I depict the university as what I call an “intellectual polis,” in which ideas and the free yet disciplined pursuit of truth is given prioritization. Envisioning the university as a polis takes account of how learning in this special community is based not only on books and reading materials, but on the countless interchanges students and faculty have with each other, which involves human emotion guided by the commitment to reason and intellectual leadership. A university worth its salt is a living thing, alive with love of the pursuit of truth.
In Chapter 3 I discuss the connections as well as the differences between “academic freedom” and “freedom of speech” more generally. Academic freedom is more bounded by standards of competence and relevance that pertain to such professional academic settings as research and the classroom, whereas freedom of speech is a broader right that should prevail in other campus settings, including the public forum and interpersonal interactions. I defend a dynamic, “dialectical” relationship between these different domains of the intellectual polis.
Each institution and profession has its distinctive reason for being, without which it ceases to be true to itself, and without which it loses its claim to legitimacy. A doctor who treated his or her patients differently because of their beliefs would cease being a doctor. Similarly, a university that prioritized politics or other matters over the pursuit of truth and intellectual freedom would be more like a political party than a university.