One Cheer for Free Speech on Campus

A professor wants to protect speech, but also to keep students from being “harmed.”

Not so long ago, free speech on college campuses was not a matter of controversy. Of course, there were heated disputes over what people said, but everyone accepted that people were entitled to speak their minds—and then face criticism as those who disagreed spoke theirs. Sadly, that has changed dramatically.

The first prominent dissent as to the value of free speech came from Professor Herbert Marcuse, who argued in 1969 that campuses (and society) should not tolerate some speech. In particular, Marcuse, a Marxist, said that speech that supported existing socioeconomic arrangements should be suppressed so that dissident voices could be heard.

Today, we find many academics echoing Marcuse and calling for severe restrictions on “hate speech,” which could mean any communication they find disagreeable. And we still find many who advocate unrestricted freedom of speech, agreeing with Justice Louis Brandeis that the remedy for bad speech is more speech.

Cancel Wars is pro-free speech, but hedged with lots of caveats.Taking a position roughly in the middle is University of Pennsylvania political-science professor Sigal R. Ben-Porath. Her recent book Cancel Wars: How Universities Can Foster Free Speech, Promote Inclusion, and Renew Democracy is pro-free speech, but hedged with lots of caveats. While college officials should allow it, they also need to shelter supposedly vulnerable students from speech that might be “painful.”

The book has some useful ideas regarding campus speech, but on the whole, it will do more to bolster the side that wants to crack down on speech that zealous students and faculty members regard as “harmful” and “exclusionary.” By conceding that campus officials have to take action when certain things are said, Ben-Porath opens the door to aggressive speech enforcers. That’s not what she wants, but it is what will happen.

She writes, “If a form of expression excludes some people on campus, it is the institution’s responsibility to correct the outcomes of that speech.” No speech can literally exclude anyone, so what does Ben-Porath mean?

What she has in mind is speech that could make some students upset, by, for example, arguing that racial preference policies have led to the admission of some students who aren’t academically competitive. Arguing that preferences can have “mismatch” effects is treated as a personal affront, and minority students are apt to declare that they feel “excluded.” They’ll demand action against the speaker, as in the case of Penn law professor Amy Wax.

How should campus officials react when students complain that speech hurts them? In days gone by, they would have done nothing, leaving it up to those who disagree to find ways of expressing their thoughts. Ben-Porath, however, argues that in such cases, schools have the burden of “supporting” the students and fostering not just more but “better” speech. That puts school officials in a position of having to take sides when students complain that they were upset at hearing something. They’re supposed to sponsor events to assuage the students and counteract the “hurtful” speech.

That’s a bad idea and not just because it’s a one-way street—we know that the complaints will always be against those who challenge “progressive” ideas and never against speakers like, say, Ibram X. Kendi, who says that anyone who doesn’t accept his “antiracist” agenda must be a racist. It’s a bad idea because a big part of maturing (something that’s supposed to happen in college) is to accept that if you don’t like what someone says, it’s your responsibility to formulate a persuasive response. Ben-Porath’s admonition to colleges to take action against “controversial” speech interferes with students learning to fight their own intellectual battles.

Speech complaints will always be against those who challenge “progressive” ideas.Furthermore, there is no reason to worry about the claims of “harm” and “pain” we hear from students. If the administration were to politely respond to such complaints by saying, “If you dislike what someone said, then go ahead and make your response, but it’s not the school’s place to intervene,” the students might denounce the school, but that would be the end of it. Students are not going to drop out or transfer just because someone they dislike was allowed to speak.

Repeatedly, Ben-Porath expresses her sympathy for students (and others) who have been “harmed” by insensitive speech. In a remarkable passage, she writes about legislation to end Critical Race Theory (CRT) teaching in public schools and court cases such as Masterpiece Cakeshop (holding that Colorado had illegally punished a baker for declining to bake a cake for a gay wedding) and Meriwether v. Shawnee State (holding that a professor could not be fired because he didn’t want to use a student’s preferred pronouns). She declares that speech protection has been used “as a tool to allow the powerful—business owners and corporations, professors and employers, police and administrators—to silence and censor those under their authority, especially those who aim to dissent or are members of minority groups.”

That claim is absurd. It is perfectly reasonable for public officials to want to stop divisive and misleading CRT teaching that takes time away from real subjects; many parents of all races have demanded that they do so. When Jack Phillips declined to bake a cake for a gay wedding, he wasn’t silencing anyone, merely declining to do something that conflicted with his beliefs. When Professor Nicholas Meriwether used what a student declared were the wrong pronouns, he censored no one.

It is also noteworthy that Ben-Porath makes much of the Nikole Hannah-Jones case at UNC, stating that it invoked “white supremacist” views. That is what the irate journalist said when UNC declined to grant her—an individual with no prior teaching experience—immediate tenure. But “white supremacy” had nothing whatever to do with it. Professor Michael Munger explained in this Martin Center article that there was nothing amiss in the university’s handling of the offer to her.

The upshot is that the author is far too ready to credit what “progressives” say.

The mob that attacked Charles Murray was not trying to “broaden the benefits of speech.”Ben-Porath also maintains that universities, as a part of their obligation to “renew democracy,” should correct mistaken student beliefs about such matters as climate change and vaccine safety. Between protecting students from “harmful” speech and trying to change “undemocratic” ideas, universities have a lot to do.

But what about disruptive students who shout down “controversial” speakers and demand the termination of professors they dislike?

Our author is against those tactics, but can’t resist writing that we shouldn’t judge the students too harshly. Here’s what she says:

The generational change around open expression might best not be interpreted as intolerance to diverse views but rather as embracing diverse people and an effort to reconcile that embrace with protections of intolerant speech. Young people are looking to broaden the benefits of speech so that more can enjoy them, including those with minority identities.

Much as I believe in being charitable and giving people the benefit of the doubt, that defense is preposterous. The unruly mob that attacked Charles Murray at Middlebury College and the students who demand that Amy Wax be fired are not trying to “broaden the benefits of speech.” They could try to respond to ideas they disagree with by making counter-arguments, but instead they automatically turn angry and intolerant. If they wanted to help “diverse people” speak, they could do so, but they don’t. Marcusian repression is what drives them, not some noble sentiment.

So, what’s actually good about free speech?

Ben-Porath writes, “The introduction of views that go beyond the realm of acceptable to most campus members is a blessing, even when it comes in disguise.” Echoing John Stuart Mill’s position, Ben-Porath observes that it is beneficial for students to understand opposing arguments, which helps reduce bitter polarization and strengthens the individual who has to argue his or her position in light of differing views. She wants universities to ensure that there’s more of that.

We are better off with wide-open freedom of speech than with campus policies meant to improve upon it.I agree but don’t think Ben-Porath’s interventionist program for them will accomplish much good.

As I see it, free speech and free trade are similar. If the government leaves people free to trade, then you have free trade; once it begins making exceptions, you slide into increasingly regulated trade. By the same token, if a university allows all speech, then you have free speech; once it takes it upon itself to “protect” against some speech and promote other speech, you don’t have free speech but instead regulated speech.

Yes, there are plenty of people who are unhappy with some of the trade that takes place, but on the whole we are much better off with free trade than with whatever set of restrictions might come about. Similarly, there are plenty of people who are unhappy with some of what is said on campus, but we are better off with wide-open freedom of speech than with campus policies meant to improve upon it.

College officials should announce a complete free-speech policy and stop fretting about the feelings of students who say they’ve been harmed.

George Leef is director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.