The campus free speech issue isn’t about free speech


When toxic hatemongers* want to speak on our campuses, they don’t have an intellectual discussion in mind — they merely see a win/win situation to promote their own brand. If their visit provokes an outrage, then they can hold up this treatment to feed the appetites of their fact-challenged adherents. If they manage to appear on campus without a ruckus, then they are provided the legitimacy of our institutions while doffing the unearned mantle of an intellectual. Whether or not we make a fuss, they end up ahead and the university takes a hit in its credibility plexus.

It’s been argued that the intellectual high ground requires us allow toxic hatemongers on our campuses to preach hate, because the free exchange of ideas means that we can’t be the ones to judge the validity of another person’s ideas. I think there’s a lot to this idea, though I don’t agree with it. I think it makes sense to draw the line at folks who have a history of hate speech, and those who are intentionally counterfactual in their arguments. (As for what hate speech is, I’m happy with how our courts have sorted this out to a good extent.)

The anti-intellectual folks who don’t like universities are quick to paint this as a higher education vs. free speech issue. I don’t think this is, at heart, a free speech issue. Framing this as a free speech issue gets in the way of a useful conversation. Framing matters.

For example, a strong majority of US voters approve of the Affordable Care Act. But after years of fear mongering and race baiting, it turns out a bunch of folks hate Obamacare. And like the ACA. Even if the two are exactly the same thing. Labels matter.

When a hatemonger gets invited to campus by the Young Republicans or White Nationalists or the Milton Friedman Society or whomever, well, that’s their right to extend the invitation. Likewise, it’s the right of everybody else on campus to protest this person’s visit to campus, and the right of the university to decide whether they should be granting a larger platform for this person’s constitutionally protected speech.

When campuses have massive protests about a scheduled speech by a hatemonger, this is not the squashing of free speech. It is a celebration of free speech. Freedom of expression is fine, for both sides. If members of the campus community** are protesting against an invited speaker from other members of the community, then they need to have that right.

If hatemongers visiting campus were true champions of free speech, they’d be defending the people who came out to speak out against them. At the very least, they wouldn’t be claiming that those who are exercising their own free speech are against the free speech of others.

What would an actual anti-free speech movement look like on a college campus? It be a movement that works to get professors fired for remarking on politically controversial topics. It’d be one that creates a blacklist of people who say things that disagree with their views. Oh wait, that’s what the hatemongers are doing. They’re the ones who don’t like free speech. And yet, they’ve convinced the media convinced that limits to free speech on campuses is the problem? Yuck.

So if protesters on campus are against a campus visit from an outside speaker, how can this not be an assault on free speech? They’re not attacking free speech, they’re just against providing a venue. If they were against free speech, then they’d be following this person wherever they went in an attempt to keep them from speaking. Protestors against hatemongers aren’t trying to rob their free speech, they just don’t want their university to give them a megaphone.

If the country is doing something that we don’t like (for example, engaging in criminal activity in the Vietnam War), then it’s perfectly within our rights to protest — heck, it very well could be considered our patriotic duty. As citizens, if we don’t like the direction of the country, then we are its caretakers to make sure it takes its proper course by exercising our free speech in a legal fashion. Even if the powerful entities in government disagree, we can still voice our opinion over the direction the country. Likewise, members of a university community are empowered to use their free speech to express their opinions on whether or not a campus is acting ethically in allowing a person with a history of hate speech to speak to their own audience***. Even if the administration and trustees disagree, it’s still the role of other members of campus to exercise their opinions. That’s what free speech looks like. When protests against hatemongers are squashed on campus, that’s when free speech dies.

The folks who say protestors against campus speakers are against free speech are the same ones who will tell you that dissent is unpatriotic. Which is poppycock.

Let’s not fall into the rhetorical trap of hatemongers. We shouldn’t be arguing whether or not we have free speech on campus — our campuses robustly support free speech (and if anything, are too tolerant of hate speech.) We’re better off talking about whether or not hate speech belongs on campus. We’re better off talking about how members of the campus community have a right to protest, as a contribution to vision of the campus intellectual environment.

When campus protestors stand up to hatemongers and say, “You’re not wanted here,” that’s not a deprivation of freedom. Instead of cowering at accusations of bias, we need to point right back and say: “A free campus allows protest. We’re not going to constrain free speech.” If universities are the marketplace of ideas, then it’s not our duty to provide a table to those selling poisoned goods.


*You know, folks like Ann Coulter, Milo somethingopolis, and that guy who gets punched for being a Nazi. Though I’m also okay if you put folks like James Watson and Richard Dawkins in this category.

** When folks from off campus come to make trouble on campus to protest a speaker, that’s a whole ‘nother matter.

***If shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater is illegal, then does spreading lies and hate about ethnic and religious minorities to a heavily armed populace much different? That’s a more useful question about free speech than asking whether university campuses are against free speech.

6 thoughts on “The campus free speech issue isn’t about free speech

  1. RE this point: “…the right of the university to decide whether they should be granting a larger platform for this person’s constitutionally protected speech.”

    What do you mean by the “university” in this case? On my campus and many others, this has meant administrators making decisions about what speakers, and even student groups, will be allowed on campus. Are you willing to cede this issue to administrators that increasingly make decisions with a corporate PR mentality focused on protecting the university’s “brand”?

    And if universities draw the line on not allowing “hate speech”, this is inevitably going to result in people like Linda Sarsour, Steven Salaita, BDS, BLM, and other leftist speakers not allowed on campus. You only cite right wingers as engaging in undesirable speech, but the Left controls almost nothing in this country (with the exception perhaps of academia, but maybe not for long given right wing interest in degrading support for academia). Ultimately those in power will be deciding what is “hate speech” that needs to be suppressed, and it will be the views of vulnerable groups that are suppressed.

  2. Terry, no clear and present danger exists with hate speech that does not incite a riot. Most if not all of your censorship arguments have been stated before, but the biggest hole in your argument for censorship is the organizational reality of higher education. At least 60 percent, according to the AAUP, of faculty are not tenured and have no protection against those who would silence them for expressing opinions or using language the donors and administrators and tenured faculty don’t like. And I’m speaking from personal experience.

    Nor will I list all the recent examples of quashing the free speech of faculty on campus; but I will point out that union organization in higher education has increased in the last year by 60 percent thanks in large part by the SEIU, and pay and job security are driving the effort, but the need to protect faculty, especially NTT faculty, is never mentioned by those who step up on the soap box to justify censorship.

    You can read the list of bigoted terms describing NTT faculty by tenured faculty in the opening of “Paper Graders,” my piece on the denigration of second class faculty at the University of Oregon. What are you doing to stop that hate speech on campus? On your campus?

  3. Also agree with JM-S.

    I also think you could make a counter argument that this brand of authoritarian leftism actually fuels the fact-challenged demographic you refer to — by censoring these people and not engaging in debates, some might see this as the left not having the facts on our side and this being afraid to debate these issues. If we truly have the facts on our side and the other side is “spreading lies”, why not have an open dialogue and let the truth have its day? Sure, the facts won’t convince everyone, but I think that they have a much better shot at convincing people than censorship.

    As someone who grew up in a conservative household and held very conservative ideas (I might even call some of them racist in hindsight) into my late teens, I can say that no one was ever going to change my mind by calling me a racist before even giving me a chance to articulate my ideas. It is only through very open and judgement-free conversations with a friend that I started to realize how insane many of my ideas were.

  4. JM-S gets to the core of the matter. Who decides on what to censor and what not? Just setup a free speech zone on campus like the zone in Hyde Park, London, UK. Ann Coulter can stand in the middle of a quad spouting nonsense as loud as she wants. People can stop and listen or walk by. But if a campus is operated like Hollywood during the code years, what’s to prevent administrators from dictating course content? And yes, that did happen in Illinois.

Leave a Reply