Free speech and civility on campus

Free speech and civility on campus

Civility is always a conscious choice

On March 2nd, at Middlebury College, Vermont, perhaps 100 protesters mobbed Dr. Charles Murray, preventing him from delivering a speech and injuring a university professor. One month previously, protests against conservative commentator Milo Yiannopoulos caused UC Berkeley to cancel his speech. The university sustained $100,000 worth of damage.

Long unwelcome on many university campuses, this violent trend against conservative thought is deeply troubling.

Is this what higher education has come to in this country? Are universities merely a series of liberal indoctrination centers whose purpose is to teach one point of view while excluding—by force, if necessary—all others?

Fortunately for academic inquiry, the response at Middlebury College was different.

There, professors signed a letter titled, “Free Inquiry on Campus: A Statement of Principles by over One Hundred Middlebury College Professors.” It is worth reading in full. Here are the first three principles:

·       Genuine higher learning is possible only where free, reasoned, and civil speech and discussion are respected.

·       Only through the contest of clashing viewpoints do we have any hope of replacing mere opinion with knowledge.

·       The incivility and coarseness that characterize so much of American politics and culture cannot justify a response of incivility and coarseness on the college campus.

The statement concludes by describing the purpose of education:

·       The primary purpose of higher education is the cultivation of the mind, thus allowing for intelligence to do the hard work of assimilating and sorting information and drawing rational conclusions.

·       A good education produces modesty with respect to our own intellectual powers and opinions as well as openness to considering contrary views.

In other words, the purpose of a college education, and especially a liberal arts education, is to teach student how to think, not what to think. This openness for academic inquiry has historically been the strength of American universities.

Perhaps the first statement of academic principles was published by the American Association of University Professors in 1915.

The Committee on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure was perhaps more interested in the freedom of professors than in freedom of speech itself. The statement is riddled with Progressive ideas. Still, the paper lists the purposes of higher education: first, free academic inquiry; second, the teaching of students; and third, the provision of experts for public service.

The key is free academic inquiry—and for that to happen, free speech and the free flow of ideas is a necessary precondition. Today, that’s no longer happening.

No person of intelligence believes that all of our political problems have been solved, or that the final stage of social evolution has been reached. – American Association of University Professors, 1915.

Charles Lipson, Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, recognizes “a soft despotism and ideological conformity that threaten the core mission of higher education.” The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) estimates that 93 percent of American universities have codes limiting First Amendment rights to free speech; 231 campuses have bias-reporting systems that encourage students to report on each other, as well as on faculty and staff, if their feelings are hurt or they hear speech they don’t like.

There is little diversity on the college campus of the sort that matters: diversity of thought and opinion. Recent surveys suggest that faculty members registered to vote as Republicans are outnumbered 60:1 by those registered as Democrats. At the University of Colorado-Boulder, there is such a dearth of diversity that they have endowed a Visiting Chair of Conservative Thought.

The University of Mississippi has established “free speech zones” where anyone can talk about anything at any time. (Reservations suggested but not required.) Their policy does hasten to add, however, that free speech is not limited to those places.

Certainly, private colleges like Middlebury have the right to decide what their speech codes will be. When universities are publicly funded, however, those decisions don’t belong to a private board of trustees but rather to the legislature.

Lipson suggests that free speech will be revived on campus “only if enough students, faculty, alumni, and boards of trustees push back and if state legislatures demand free speech in public institutions.”

Although all too rare, statements like the one at Middlebury College are what’s needed. The signers of that statement come from almost every department at college. With a student body of 2500, it isn’t hard to imagine that over 100 professors represent a majority of the faculty.

Also needed is action by state legislatures responsible for public funding. In Colorado, there is currently a bill (SB17-062), Free Speech on Campus, working its way through the legislative process. It appears that it has a good chance of becoming law.

If that can happen Colorado with its politically divided legislature, it can happen almost anywhere.