Free Speech on College Campuses

American colleges and universities are hothouses of hypocrisy and the principal exhibit is the fact that while their spokesmen talk endlessly about their commitment to openness, tolerance, critical thinking, diversity, and so on, many of them have adopted speech codes designed to stifle the expression of unpopular sentiments and empower certain groups to punish others for having the temerity to speak their minds. It is hard to imagine anything more at odds with the environment of inquiry that colleges and universities are supposed to stand for than a speech code. Nevertheless, many schools adopted codes (often disguised as policies against “harassment”) in the 1980s and 1990s, and some remain in effect.

In his Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus, Donald Downs, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, gives us a history of the rise and decline (fall would be putting it too strongly) of the movement against free speech on American campuses. It is more than just a history, though. Downs also makes the case against restrictions on free speech and liberty. In both efforts, he succeeds wonderfully – the history of speech codes is carefully chronicled and the reader is left with no doubt that the whole enterprise was a stupendous folly.

What makes Professor Downs’ book so compelling is the fact that, as a faculty member, he was in the thick of the battle over the speech code that was adopted at the University of Wisconsin. Not only that, but he initially supported the adoption of the code, believing that the university administration could “strike a reasonable balance” between freedom of expression and speech that might cause “trauma and moral harm.”

That view did not survive long once Downs came to see how speech codes actually worked. Downs writes,

By the early 1990s, it was becoming evident how the speech codes and the ideologies that they represented had hampered intellectual honesty. Many colleagues and students related that they felt as if they were walking on eggshells in class when talking about racially and sexually sensitive topics – even though these were among the most important social and political topics of our time.

Far from increasing civility on campus – the justification that was ritually advanced in favor of codes and similar policies – Downs could see that they were being aggressively used to silence and harass people who challenged the ideas that are so dear to the multiculturalist worldview. The marketplace of ideas was in danger of being replaced with a timid silence born of the fear that saying the wrong thing could at any time land one in a nightmare of Inquisition-like procedures. The supposed shield for civility was in fact being wielded as a sword against students and professors who said anything that, bothered members of the “protected” groups.

The first part of the book is an analysis of the speech code phenomenon. Downs locates the roots of the movement in their favor in the illiberal instincts of many of the advocates of “multiculturalism” to want to criminalize any difference of opinion with them. Although few of them had probably read Herbert Marcuse, the spirit of his book Repressive Tolerance animates the speech code enthusiasts. Marcuse argued that free speech was actually repressive because it allegedly put status quo ideas in a position of dominance and suppressed the voices of dissent. His “solution” was to suppress ideas critical of his radical Marxist notions to make things more fair. To put it in economics terms, Marcuse was saying that because his radical ideas had not done well in the marketplace of ideas that proved that there was a market failure that could only be remedied with coercive regulation to help them succeed.

Once empowered with speech regulation, the radicals and compliant administrators were eager to use it. They did their utmost to turn higher education away from the modern view that colleges and universities are about the pursuit of truth, and back to the older “proprietary” view. Downs explains:

The older proprietary university was concerned with preserving a certain vision of the world, not with critical inquiry….The new version devalues intellectual conflict in favor of an agenda extrinsic to the pursuit of truth and has ushered in new loco parentis policies that now take the form of speech codes and paternalistic student orientation. Whereas old student conduct codes attempted to reinforce manners, the new codes attempt to influence students’ attitudes and thoughts through various kinds of pressure.

Central to the project of instituting and enforcing speech codes was (and is) the ideology of victimhood. That is to say, the idea that groups which were arguably treated unfairly in the past hold special rights in the present, rights that protect them against possibly hurtful speech. Downs replies that the effort to redress historical wrongs through the restriction of free speech merely “infantilizes” the supposed beneficiaries by rendering them incapable of handling open discourse.

The second part of the book consists of four case studies: Columbia University’s sexual misconduct policy, the anti-free speech movement at the University of California, the speech code at the University of Pennsylvania culminating in the absurd “water buffalo” incident, and the rise and fall of the speech codes at the University of Wisconsin. Each case study introduces the reader to individuals who participated in the battles and their reasons for having done so. The stories are replete with real victims (students and professors who were pilloried for having offended in an innocent and trivial way some person or group empowered by speech codes), real villains (both the speech code aggressors and university administrators who went along with their demands), and real heroes (people like Pennsylvania’s Alan Kors who pitched into the fight at personal cost because they could see the harm to academic discourse and the blatant unfairness of the speech code procedures.) All four are intriguing stories, with lessons transcending the particular times, places, and people.

Downs sums the whole book up beautifully with a quotation from Shira Diner, the young woman who was the Wisconsin valedictorian in 1997: “For the past four years we have been cheated out of the education which this University should be providing because of a speech code imposed on the faculty which restricts what they can and cannot say in our classes. We have a right to be challenged with ideas that are not easy and may hurt us. We deserve nothing less if we expect to find the truth.”

Speech codes and their ilk are in retreat across higher education in America. Professor Downs’ excellent book should help to put an end to the sorry episode of campus speech controls for good.