Limits and Freedom: One Important Dialogue

At the end of an article of his published yesterday in ThNew York Times, Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) says:

Students can’t learn how to navigate democracy and engage with their fellow citizens if they are forced to think twice before they speak their mind.

Well… actually they can, and will learn it better if they do think twice. In fact, that’s part of what college is about, learning to think twice before shooting one’s mouth off.

Lukianoff’s essay, “Feigning Free Speech on Campus,” is an attempt to contrast campus restrictions on speech with First Amendment rights. He has a point: sometimes attempts to get people to think twice before popping off do go too far. But that does not mean that colleges and universities should abandon attempts to bring civility to discourse.

Part of becoming educated is learning how and when to speak, and to do it effectively. As my father used to say, “A gentleman does not insult anyone by accident.”

Most group blogs have had to impose rules of civility on their users, taking down posts that overstep bounds and even banning those who won’t conform. This isn’t a matter of abridging free speech but, in many cases, of allowing it to flourish. Certain speech behaviors themselves impede free speech and, blog owners have found, need to be curtailed if any good discussion is to take place at all. We have such rules here. At the bottom of this post you will see this:

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Now, the AAUP isn’t a government entity, so is not covered by the First Amendment, which reads, of course:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Because they are public institutions, it is assumed that all but private colleges are agents of the government, extending the edict to them, as well. Lukianoff writes:

In a study of 392 campus speech codes last year, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, where I work, found that 65 percent of the colleges had policies that in our view violated the Constitution’s guarantee of the right to free speech. (While the First Amendment generally prohibits public universities from restricting nondisruptive free speech, private colleges are not state actors and therefore have more leeway to establish their own rules.)

He does not tell us how many of those 65 percent are, in fact, private colleges–but no matter. The key here is the word “nondisruptive.”

On a blog, it is disruptive speech that is likely to get one banned. The argument comes in defining just what that means–as is the case on college campuses. Lukianoff can certainly argue that some campuses go to far (that he knows the line is fuzzy can be seen in his use of the phrase “in our view”), but I don’t see how he can claim that campus speech codes can be “Orwellian,” as he does, when the central contention is simply over where civility leaves off. He quotes a former Harvard professor as saying that the voluntary agreement to civility students there are asked to sign is “a promise to control one’s thoughts” as if that isn’t something that a college education is expected to do for all of us.

We do command our thoughts unless our tongues are somehow out of control (when we are drunk, or high, or have succumbed to another imbalance). Education is a process of learning to do this effectively–that is, to the benefit of our arguments. I see nothing wrong with asking students to be aware of this even as they start their college careers.

It seems to me that Lukianoff is painting something necessary as an extreme. He certainly never says that all speech is free speech. Perhaps it is important that warnings such as his appear from time to time, but I wish he would be a little more clear that he is not attacking the need to make real conversation possible by placing certain restrictions around it. He is only attacking (I suspect) those who take those restrictions too far.

One thought on “Limits and Freedom: One Important Dialogue

  1. I generally disagree with Aaron Barlow on his point (and I probably disagree with Academe Blog’s vague restrictions on degrading others and violating privacy–in fact, I recently put up a post about Dinesh D’Souza’s personal life that arguably violated his privacy). Although I have some strong disagreements with FIRE, I agree with them almost all of the time and support their important work. When Lukianoff writes that students shouldn’t “think twice” before speaking, he’s talking about the fear of being punished by authorities, not the fear of seeming foolish. Personally, I think we need to encourage students to speak out much more, but there may be a rare exception to that rule. However, official punishment is something very, very different.

    Perhaps it may be helpful for particular blogs to have restrictions on stupid speech (I’m skeptical), but a college campus is not like a blog. A college is more like the internet itself, where free speech should reign supreme. In a blog, like a classroom, the professor in charge has a right and responsibility to move the conversation forward. But that doesn’t mean colleges should start punishing students and staff for their free speech.

    Barlow and Lukianoff mean very different things by “disruptive” in this context. Barlow is talking about people who move the conversation in worthless directions, and in a blog or in a classroom, it can be appropriate to carefully “silence” that speech by moving on. Lukianoff is talking about an actual physical disruption, such as shouting down a speaker, or using threats to silence someone. And he’s right that this is the rare exception to the rule that colleges as an institution must not punish free speech.

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.