Why Freedom of Expression Isn't a Dangerous Mistake

At Minding the Campus, National Association of Scholars president Peter Wood calls the adoption by other colleges of the University of Chicago statement on freedom of expression “a dangerous mistake.” It is always dangerous when extremists imagine that freedom of expression must not be applied to their enemies, and that’s exactly what Wood does.

Wood believes that there is too much freedom of expression on college campuses, and what is needed is much more repression: “The rise of ‘studies’ departments that are little more than ideological satrapies on campus does not jibe with free expression. To hold a legitimate place in the community of higher education, a field of study must be willing to treat even its most basic ideas as hypotheses that are open in principle to challenge, not as matters of settled belief.” In Wood’s Orwellian vision, all “studies” programs (or perhaps only the ones he thinks are too left-wing) are illegitimate and must be destroyed in the name of free expression.

I am deeply skeptical of anyone who postulates without bothering to offer any evidence that entire fields of study, in every single college across the country, universally prohibit all dissent from the basic assumptions of the field. (Of course, by that same logic I can see creationists demanding the abolition of biology departments, Marxists demanding the abolition of business schools, and Holocaust deniers demanding the abolition of Jewish Studies programs.)

Wood writes, “we understand this freedom not as an end in itself but as purposeful.” The problem is not Wood’s belief that freedom is purposeful. Indeed, it is. The problem is that Wood thinks freedom must be subordinated to more important goals: “the purpose of the college to which freedom of expression is necessarily subordinate.”

Wood fears, “the statement gives license to the forces that have brought on the regime of triviality, curricular incoherence, narcissistic teaching, and intellectual aimlessness that have beset so many colleges and universities.” In some ways, Wood is misreading the University of Chicago statement. He complains that it fails to mention falsification of data, plagiarism, and similar things. But the statement explicitly allows restricting expression “directly incompatible with the functioning of the University,” which certainly includes falsification of academic work. The purpose of this statement is free expression in public events; it was never intended to be the guide for the classroom or the curriculum.

I was slightly critical of the University of Chicago statement when it was released because I think it does not go quite far enough in protecting freedom of expression. Wood has the opposite concern.

Wood believes that there is a conflict “between freedom of expression and the pursuit of truth.” He fears that “Freedom of expression permits lies.” And it certainly does. We must allow lies because otherwise people who disagree can simply accuse each other of being “liars” to justify suppressing the other’s point of view. As Wood himself claims, universities cannot have a “settled belief” from which all dissenters are deemed violators of the pursuit of truth. We must pursue truth by allowing freedom of expression. Truth is not endangered by hearing bad or wrong ideas; but the truth is threatened by the suppression of free expression.

4 thoughts on “Why Freedom of Expression Isn't a Dangerous Mistake

  1. John, I think this is an unfortunate misreading of Peter’s piece. You are assuming that either there is full freedom of expression or else totalitarian “Orwellian” censorship.

    There is a third option made possible by the special context of higher education. As you know well, NAS believes this context was set forth clearly in the AAUP’s 1915 statement: “The liberty of the scholar within the university to set forth his conclusions, be they what they may, is conditioned by their being conclusions gained by a scholar’s method and held in a scholar’s spirit; that is to say, they must be the fruits of competent and patient and sincere inquiry, and they should be set forth with dignity, courtesy, and temperateness of language.”

    I also think your last paragraph conflates the two things Peter was trying to distinguish. Lies help advance the search for truth? No, the search for truth is advanced by “sincere inquiry.” Mistaken ideas are one thing – deliberate lies are another.

    – Ashley Thorne, NAS (on Peter’s behalf while he is traveling)

    • I use the term “Orwellian” for Peter Wood’s use of “free expression” to justify restricting freedom. I don’t mean to suggest he is advocating totalitarianism. The special context of higher education demands more freedom, not less. I disagree with the AAUP’s 1915 statement (which the AAUP no longer embraces) because the “scholar’s spirit” is too vague as a standard of punishment. Lies advance the truth when we have the freedom to refute them and learn from their mistakes. But if the distinction between mistaken ideas and deliberate lies is “sincere inquiry,” who can we trust to properly measure sincerity? When scholars engage in fraud, and invent data that deceives other scholars or take credit for someone else’s work, that is punishable. But standing up and declaring “you lie!” is a matter for open debate, not suppression by academic administrators.

    • Just to reiterate what John says in his response to you, “Orwellian” generally is not used to mean censorship but the warping of meaning into its opposite: “War is Peace,” for example. “Restricting freedom for free expression” would be another example.

      • An interesting turn of phrase–restricting freedom for free expression,” but I called for no such thing. My dissent from the University of Chicago statement is built on the recognition that freedom of expression is only one of several principles that are foundational to the university. These principles, unhappily, do not always push in the same direction. Conflicts arise. The pretense that “freedom of expression” trumps everything else is hollow. No university ever operated on that basis. The Chicago statement indulges that idea by making no effort to put “freedom of eepression” into the larger academic context or to explain why it is important.

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