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Free Speech and the Academic Mission

On February 7th of this year, animal rights advocates from the Stanford chapter of activist group Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) interrupted a panel discussion of the documentary “American Meat,” a critique of the American industrial meat production system in favor of kindlier and more local animal husbandry. Insisting that any kind of farming in which animals are killed – including the softer version promoted by the directors of “American Meat” – is morally unacceptable, the protesters spoke loudly over the panel and its moderator, temporarily derailing the event’s intended dialogue.

In April, a Florida Atlantic University professor held an in-class exercise during which a Mormon student was encouraged to write the word “Jesus” on a piece of paper and then stomp on it. Despite insisting that the very purpose of the exercise was to encourage students to grapple with why cultural symbols carried sacred or important value, the professor was placed on administrative leave after a firestorm of public controversy.

On May 4th, more than 100 student activists affiliated with environmental group Mountain Justice (MJ) stormed an open meeting of Swarthmore College’s Board of Managers. Rejecting the meeting’s existing format – under which the Board would have presented arguments for and against fossil fuel divestment, a campaign that has also taken off at Stanford – MJ members instead interrupted the Board’s first speaker and proceeded to set their own meeting agenda, preventing Board member and Swarthmore alum Chris Niemczewski from delivering a presentation about the fiscal consequences of divestment for the College endowment.

And on May 10th, immigration researcher Jason Richwine resigned from the conservative Heritage Foundation after the Washington Post discovered that his Harvard PhD dissertation asserted the existence of “deep-set differentials in intelligence between races.” Students at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government penned an open letter arguing that “the Harvard Kennedy School cannot ethically stand by academic work advocating a national policy of exclusion.”

What do these four events have in common? They all reflect the idea that some topics can be so morally unacceptable as to be off-limits to discussion – that dialogue about those topics is itself intrinsically illegitimate and unsuited for an academic environment.

Is stonewalling ever superior to dialogue? Is refusing to discuss a contentious topic ever the right thing to do? And does the mission of the university to educate its students present a special set of circumstances that modify the general rules of free speech?

To the first two, I answer “very, very rarely,” and to the last, I answer “yes, but not in the way you’d think.”

The ideological architecture of free speech is supported by two formidable pillars: the inherent right of every human to self-expression and the utilitarian value produced by a free exchange of ideas. The first asserts that no person ought to have his conscience infringed by the government, and the second that the best ideas cannot achieve prominence, nor the worst be jettisoned, unless society allows them to compete freely with one another in the public mind.

British philosopher John Stuart Mill, the chief engineer of utilitarian free speech theory, asserted famously that opinion is either right or wrong, and that in both cases silencing speech harms society. “If the opinion is right,” argued Mill in On Liberty, “they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” In other words, silence the truth and you lose it; silence lies and you lose the chance to see clearly why you were right in the first place, or to be inspired to fight back in support of the right and good.

In March 2010, for example, members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, infamous for picketing the funerals of American soldiers with hateful anti-LGBT placards, decided to bring their virulent message of bigotry to Stanford University. The University could legally have prohibited them from picketing; doing so would have been well within Stanford’s rights as a private property owner, and many groups insisted that the University exercise that right to bar WBC from campus.

Wisely, the University (led by philosopher-Provost John Etchemendy) did the opposite. And as Mill might have predicted, the positive effect was dramatic: campus came together in a huge and joyful counter-protest, an opportunity for unity that would have been lost had Stanford taken the easy route out.

One can imagine potential events with far more offensive and extreme participants than those scary organic farmers featured in American Meat or even the bigots of the WBC: “Should Homosexuals be Publicly Crucified or Merely Stoned to Death? A panel discussion featuring Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia,” for instance, or “Jefferson Davis debates Abraham Lincoln on the ethics of slavery” (brought to you by a collaboration between the Program in Ethics and Society and the Physics Department’s Michael Crichton Program in Trans-Millenial Time Travel).

Yet both events would present invaluable opportunities for campus unity and counter-organization; for pure, unadulterated learning (about the differences between Salafi and Shi’a Islamic law regarding sexuality, for instance, or about which pro-slavery arguments the Confederates believed in most strongly and how Lincoln might have refuted them); and for the essentials of the University mission. I personally would feel it a shame were either of these hypothetical events to be shut down by protesters (or administrators) refusing to allow the speakers to speak. (Indeed, Ahmadinejad was invited to speak, and did, at Columbia University in 2007. No such luck, sadly, with Davis and Lincoln.)

Ultimately, both rights-based and utilitarian justifications for free speech hold true on University campuses as surely as they do elsewhere. But within the walls of the ivory tower, free speech can serve a third, equally valuable purpose: educating students in the conduct and purpose of difficult dialogue, and in how to grapple with arguments with which we firmly disagree.

That’s why I read National Review every week. It’s why history courses assign Mein Kampf, or speeches by Stalin and Mao. It’s why you should keep challenging yourself to interact with controversial speakers and writers. And it’s why that tiny “free speech zone” in White Plaza, open during that tiny sliver from noon to 1pm, needs to get a whole lot bigger.

Exercise your free speech rights by emailing Miles at [email protected].

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