On Outside Speakers and Academic Freedom, Part IV


“We can respect the right of free speech without having to respect the ideas being uttered.” — Joan W. Scott, “On Free Speech and Academic Freedom” (forthcoming)

This is the final installment in a four-part series.  Part I may be found here; part II is here; part III is here

Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech

Among the many responses to this year’s controversies over campus free speech, Stanley Fish’s March 20 piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Free Speech Is Not An Academic Value,” may have been the most provocative.  Fish begins by taking to task a statement by a faculty committee at the University of Minnesota, which proclaimed the university’s “larger normative commitment to the free exchange of ideas.”  Fish disagreed: “The university’s normative commitment is to freedom of inquiry, which is quite a different thing.”  He continues:

The phrase “free exchange of ideas” suggests something like a Hyde Park corner or a town-hall meeting where people take turns offering their opinions on pressing social matters. The right to speak is held by all . . .

The course of free inquiry in universities is not like that at all. Before one can speak, in a classroom or in the research seminar or in a journal publication, one will have been subjected to any number of vetting procedures. . . . To put it another way, the free exchange of ideas between persons who want in on the conversation is a democratic ideal; but the university is not a democracy; it is (or is supposed to be) a meritocracy, one in which those who get to put their ideas forward are far outnumbered by those who don’t.

“Freedom of speech,” Fish therefore concludes, “is not an academic value.  Accuracy of speech is an academic value; completeness of speech is an academic value; relevance of speech is an academic value.  Each of these values is directly related to the goal of academic inquiry: getting a matter of fact right.”

In the past I have been critical of Fish’s unduly cramped interpretation of academic freedom, what he has called the “it’s just a job” school (see here and at greater length here).  But in this essay he makes a good point: academic freedom and freedom of speech are founded on differing justifications and should not be confused.  In his recent study of intermediary associations, Rationalism, Pluralism and Freedom, libertarian scholar Jacob Levy confirms that “academic freedom is not just the same thing as ‘free expression of ideas’.”  While it “has some overlap of form and purpose with liberal freedom of speech,” academic freedom “is genuinely not the same thing. . . .  It is the professional ethic of a purposive community.”  As Joan W. Scott pointed out in a talk in April (to be published later this month in the forthcoming Journal of Academic Freedom), “Free speech makes no distinction about quality; academic freedom does.”

In another forthcoming essay, “The Classic First Amendment Tradition Under Stress: Freedom of Speech and the University,” that he has graciously made available to me, Robert Post, Sterling Professor of Law at Yale University and former AAUP General Counsel, writes, “The scope of academic freedom is not determined by First Amendment principles of freedom of speech, but by the metrics of professional competence.”  He adds, “the freedom of inquiry characteristic of a disciplinary community is quite different from the classic First Amendment tradition.”

Post criticizes the position of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) that “a university exists to educate students and advance the frontiers of human knowledge, and does so by acting as a ‘marketplace of ideas‘”  (emphasis added).  But speech within college and university classrooms and in scholarly exchange bears little resemblance to a free market and doesn’t serve the purposes of the First Amendment.  Creationism and Holocaust denial, for examples, are protected in the open market, but not in the classroom. Indeed, even within public universities, Post argues, “FIRE and overblown public rhetoric notwithstanding, it makes little sense to apply core First Amendment principles of freedom of speech.”

Academia itself has too often confused the relationship between academic freedom in the service of teaching and research and a broader liberal commitment to free expression  Take, for example, the famous Yale University Woodward Report of 1974.  (The report has recently been republished as a small book with a new laudatory preface, introduction, and commentaries — but not with the powerful dissenting statement offered at the time by the panel’s law student member.)  It opens with the clear declaration that “the primary function of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledge by means of research and teaching.”  Almost immediately, however, the report goes on to claim that “the paramount obligation of the university is to protect the right to free expression.”  As Post points out in a footnote, the report’s commitment to research and teaching and its “overriding” commitment to free speech “cannot be reconciled except through a theory of education that, at its extreme, runs contrary to the experience of virtually all university teachers and administrators. It is no wonder, therefore, that the Report is almost always read to subordinate the goal of teaching and to elevate ‘free speech over every other university goal or purpose.'”

[The reality at Yale is rather different than the ideals the institution so piously claims to embrace.  The report’s dissenting statement noted several “interferences with the free market of ideas at Yale,” including an “article by Dr. Spock which the Alumni Magazine refused to print; the termination of the employment of such radical faculty members as Staughton Lynd (History), Mills and McBride­ (Philosophy), and Resnick, Hymer, Weisskopf (Economics]; censorship by the Administration of the Yale Band; punishment of streakers.”  More recently, one might point to Yale’s unusual relationship with the National University of Singapore, about which the AAUP has raised significant questions with respect to academic freedom and free expression more generally; its 2006 rejection of Juan Cole for a tenured position despite overwhelming faculty support after an intensive media campaign against Cole’s appointment by pro-Israel and right-wing groups; or to the adoption of Standards of Faculty Conduct that, according to one prominent professor, paid lip service to free expression in the preamble but “gave little if any thought to the importance of safeguards: for academic freedom, for freedom of expression, for dissent and for diversity.”]

The classic elements of academic freedom, as first defined by the AAUP in 1915, encompass freedom in teaching, research, and in the professor’s right to speak as a citizen.  But what about when these are not directly relevant, as in the regulation of outside speakers?  (Arguably, this is the issue that the Woodward Report really sought to address.)  Is there some common ground that must be shared by academic freedom, strictly defined, and by free speech, as articulated in what Post labels “the classic First Amendment tradition?”

Fish, not surprisingly, takes a rather extreme view.  “[N]either free speech — speech uttered by anyone who has something to say — nor political speech — speech intended to nudge students in one direction or the other — is a legitimate part of the academic scene,” he contends.  Such speech is strictly “extracurricular,” a “sideshow.”  To be sure, “the university lets this stuff go on, but . . . it neither affirms nor repudiates any of the positions that vie for attention in the circus it allows on its grounds; it doesn’t take those positions seriously, and it shouldn’t. . . ”

As far as Fish is concerned, therefore, there really is no free speech controversy on campus; there is, instead, what he deems a crisis of management.  Fish is untroubled that protesting students can be “obnoxious, self-righteous, self-preening, shallow, short-sighted, intolerant, and generally impossible.”  In short, “they are students, doing what students do.”  (I’m reminded here of Levy’s more diplomatic remark, “It turns out that 18-year-olds seized of the conviction of their own righteousness are prone to immoderation and simplistic views.  Who knew?”)  It is, therefore, Fish argues, not the job of students (or, by implication, of their teachers) either to guarantee or police free expression; that “is what administrations are supposed to do and what they are paid to do: Set up procedures for establishing, maintaining, and managing the various enterprises, academic and nonacademic, that fall within their purview.”  In short, he concludes, if nonacademic expression is to be permitted on campus, administrators must become more responsible “managers of crowd control.”

There are several problems with this approach.  First, of course, is Fish’s constricted view of academic governance, in which faculty have little to no responsibility for institutional affairs outside their closely defined roles in the classroom, the lab, and the library.  As far as he is concerned, or so it would appear, faculty members need not concern themselves with the “sideshow” of outside speakers, but should leave that to the administration.  The problem, of course, is that the line between the curricular and the extracurricular, the scholarly and the political, is hardly a bright one.  For faculty to abdicate a role in the definition of this border, leaving it to managers, would be an obvious disaster.  Just as advocates of free speech repeatedly point out how yielding to government the right to determine who may speak and what may be said will always end up disproportionately limiting the rights of minorities and dissidents, advocates for academic freedom should recognize that empowering administrations to regulate the freedoms of outside speakers will ultimately empower administrative regulation of the faculty’s own professional academic freedom.

Aaron Hanlon has argued that speaker invitations should always be products of discussion.  He writes:

We should think about campus speakers less in terms of the so-called marketplace and more in the terms that guide other kinds of educational programming on campus.  Inviting quality speakers to share expertise and experience is an important part of the educational mission.  Just as scholars routinely disagree about which material belongs on the syllabus, administrators, faculty, and students can understandably and productively disagree over what makes a quality speaker.  The process of reconciling that disagreement is bound to involve vocal opposition to some invited speakers, arguments made with varying degrees of merit and coherence.

But under Fish’s approach such discussion would for all intents and purposes be avoided.  Since outside speakers are “extracurricular” and largely irrelevant to the university’s mission, each group would be free to invite whomever it may please — or perhaps not be free to invite anyone at all — with minimal faculty participation but with the administration obliged to guarantee security.  This is both impractical and wrong.

More to the point, another issue with Fish’s argument is that he fails to address the problem of defining not only how speech is to be managed but which speech is to be permitted.  Since for him free speech is not even “a legitimate part of the academic scene,” he’d clearly be content if there were never outside speakers, excluding perhaps a few visiting scholars invited by the faculty.  But once such speakers are permitted — and there is hardly a college or university, public or private, that does not do so — how to determine which among them should be deemed acceptable remains undetermined.  In short, Fish’s view seems to be this: if you want to have speakers, fine, but it’s not an academic concern so just deal with it.  Not much help.

Post, on the other hand, takes this bull by the horns.  In his characteristically subtle and penetrating manner, he concludes that while “the conceptual framework of academic freedom has not been elaborated to include outside speakers, the scope and bounds of the proper regulation of the speech of outside speakers must nevertheless be justified by reference to their contributions to the twin missions of the modern university,” teaching and research.

Do outside speakers contribute to one or the other of those missions, and if so how?  The assumption is that speakers invited by the institution or its faculty will have things to say relevant to teaching or research.  If not, it is hard to justify their appearance.  But what about when students, who “are accountable neither for the research mission of the university nor for its educational responsibilities,” invite a speaker?  Students may invite speakers for entertainment purposes, someone like, say, Chris Rock.  Or speakers may be brought to campus for political purposes that have little to do with institutional mission.  (Arguably, Milo Yiannopoulos fits both categories, albeit as a negative example of each.)  Even when students seek to invite speakers with greater academic credibility, their choices may be poor ones.  Nevertheless, there are multiple reasons why the faculty of a university might yet encourage students to invite speakers of their choosing.  Insofar as these reasons are left unstated or unquestioned, however, it will be difficult for the institution to decide how speaking events might be regulated.  Colleges and universities, Post therefore suggests, must “determine how policies of authorizing student-invited speakers serve institutional purposes of education and the expansion of knowledge.”  On that basis they may be able to limit the terms under which speakers who do not advance those purposes may speak.

Starting from the assumption that “a college or university campus is an associational space, deliberately shaped in all sorts of ways to promote the university’s purposes,” Jacob Levy arrives at a rationale similar to Post’s.  Although “freedom of association vests primarily in the university itself,” a campus may authorize the existence of closed student clubs under the rationale that “the quality of intellectual exchange is enhanced by allowing ideas to be developed, explored, and refined among those who share them. . . . Like academic freedom, clubs’ associational freedom is justified and also shaped by the purposes of university life” (emphases in original).  From this Levy concludes, While normally a secular university should not have viewpoint-based restrictions on, e.g., the sponsored speakers that student clubs bring to campus, its rules and its reasons here will differ from those of the liberal state,” and may be “more restrictive.”

Especially since Charlottesville some college and university administrations have sought to limit the access of provocative outside speakers on the grounds that their talks will result in violence, which of course runs counter to the academic mission.  Universities are surely entitled to bar or severely restrict speakers whose declared or transparent goal is the initiation of violence, especially where a speaker’s retinue may be armed (a situation rendered more difficult in “campus carry” states).  Often, however, such justifications are little more than thinly veiled capitulations to the “heckler’s veto” (see part I of this series).  Therefore Post’s approach may provide a firmer basis on which those who seek to limit the speech of provocateurs and bigots like Yiannopoulos or Ann Coulter may found their arguments.  Indeed, in many respects his idea that outside speakers must serve institutional missions provides the soundest basis for restricting speakers on the basis of what they have to say.  Nonetheless in the end I don’t find Post’s remedy entirely persuasive.

For one thing, Post’s argument is in important respects a continuation of his longstanding effort to clarify the “muddle” that surrounds academic freedom jurisprudence (see, for example, this video of a 2015 forum at U.C. Davis), driven by broader efforts to apply First Amendment protections to “speech as such” rather than to public discourse.  Post contends that “the predictable over-extension of First Amendment rights will in the long run prove unsustainable.”  I agree; we can see negative impacts of this already in other spheres, most famously in campaign finance (Citizens United) and public employment law (Friedrichs and Janus).  But it is hardly clear that Post’s position, irrespective of its manifest merit, has as yet been embraced by influential segments of the judiciary.  As a consequence, it is at least questionable whether a public institution seeking to bar a student-invited speaker on the Postian grounds that the speaker’s words are not relevant to the university’s educational mission, would prevail in today’s courts.  Moreover, even the wisest efforts to limit controversial speech on the basis advocated by Post will, I fear, only fuel the impact of those whose ostensibly liberal advocacy of “free speech” thinly veils their very illiberal political aims.

In addition, in a footnote Post explains that he does “not consider situations where speakers come to campus based exclusively on private resources and without explicit university sanction, because in such circumstances the connection between speakers and universities becomes particularly difficult to define.”  However, as I demonstrated in part I of this series, some of the most controversial outside speakers — Ann Coulter and Charles Murray, for examples — are often privately funded and promoted, sometimes quite generously, with the institution providing only the venue.

More substantively, Post’s approach demands a prior discussion of not only when but why colleges and universities should permit or even encourage nonacademic speech.  Unlike Fish, who simply suggests there is no academic justification at all for nonacademic speech, Post argues that such justifications must derive from the university’s central missions.  “Unless they are wasting their resources on a frolic and detour,” he says, universities “can authorize students to invite speakers only because it serves university purposes to do so.  The problem is that universities typically undertheorize these purposes.”  That, however, is quite a significant problem.  What purposes are served by permitting student-invited speakers?  As much as conversations about this would be salutary, it is not at all clear that they could arrive at a common answer to this question, perhaps even in a single institution.

One response that many will no doubt advocate is that insofar as a purpose of higher education is training for better citizenship, the institutional purpose served will be to allow students to practice civic engagement in the relatively protected environment of the campus.  But for this a First Amendment regime, so to speak, will be essential, much as editorial freedom is essential to the training of student journalists working in campus media.  In addition, as I argued previously in this series, colleges and universities remain by and large “the places in America where the diversity of views to be found is most extensive and least restricted, certainly when compared to the mass media, the corporate world, or religious institutions.”  And while such diversity may not be a function entirely of the institutions’ academic mission and may in good measure stem from permissive attitudes to the ideas and speech of nonacademic outsiders, it is a benefit to society nonetheless and one worth preserving.

As Scott has suggested, societal benefit was a central concern of the AAUP’s founders.  “It was in defense of the university’s role as the crucible of critique that the doctrine of academic freedom was formulated,” she says.  The AAUP’s 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure emphasized the university’s role as “an intellectual experiment station” serving the common good.  It quoted (as does Scott) one university president: “It is better for students to think about heresies than not to think at all; better for them to climb new trails, and stumble over error if need be, than to ride forever in upholstered ease in the overcrowded highway.”  However, in the next sentence that president continued, “It is a primary duty of a teacher to make a student take an honest account of his stock of ideas, throw out the dead matter, place revised price marks on what is left, and try to fill his empty shelves with new goods.”  It is difficult to see how that primary duty can be fully achievable without allowing for the expression of heresies, and not only academic ones.  And it is also difficult to imagine how the faculty themselves can model “heresy” sufficiently enough to facilitate learning without employing examples from outside the realm of scholarship and expertise.

In short, as Scott concludes, “we can respect the right of free speech without having to respect the ideas being uttered.”  It is the responsibility of the faculty to engage critically with ideas that enter higher education not only from the realm of scholarship but also, perhaps in some areas even more, from the external “free marketplace of ideas.”  But such engagement requires that heretical ideas, however repugnant or wacky, may be expressed in the first place.

On Tolerance

In an essay published in March in response to the Middlebury events, Yale Law School professor and prominent novelist Stephen L. Carter wrote:

Students who try to shut down debate are not junior Nazis or proto-Stalins.  If they were, I would be content to say that their antics will wind up on the proverbial ash heap of history.  Alas, the downshouters represent something more insidious.  They are, I am sorry to say, Marcusians.  A half-century-old contagion has returned.

Carter refers here to Herbert Marcuse, the late Frankfurt School Marxist philosopher who in the 1960s gained notoriety as a supposed “theorist” of the New Left.  Marcuse has long been scapegoated for his supposedly dangerous influence on college youth, including famously by Hollywood star John Wayne in a 1971 Playboy interview.  But liberals too have been highly critical of some of his work.  Carter does acknowledge, albeit only in a footnote, that there is much to repay a reading of Marcuse, especially his One Dimensional Man.  The problem instead lies with one of Marcuse’s more notorious writings, his 1965 essay, “Repressive Tolerance,” where, according to Carter, “he sets out the argument that the downshouters are putting into practice.”

Here is how Carter describes that argument:

For Marcuse, the fact that liberal democracies made tolerance an absolute virtue posed a problem. If society includes two groups, one powerful and one weak, then tolerating the ideas of both will mean that the voice and influence of the strong will always be greater. To treat the arguments of both sides with equal respect “mainly serves the protection and preservation of a repressive society.” That is why, for Marcuse, tolerance is antithetical to genuine democracy and thus “repressive.”

He proposes that we practice what he calls a “liberating” or “discriminating” tolerance. He is quite clear about what he means: “tolerance against movements from the Right, and tolerance of movements from the Left.” Otherwise the majority, even if deluded by false consciousness, will always beat back efforts at necessary change. The only way to build a “subversive majority,” he writes, is to refuse to give ear to those on the wrong side. The wrong is specified only in part, but Marcuse has in mind particularly capitalism and inequality.

In the end, Carter concludes, “Marcuse lives. The downshouters will go on behaving deplorably, and reminding the rest of us that the true harbinger of an authoritarian future lives not in the White House but in the groves of academe.” (Yes, he wrote this!)

I have always thought that Marcuse’s influence and the influence in particular of this essay have been greatly exaggerated.  I encountered Marcuse’s tolerance essay in college soon after it came out, but I’m pretty sure I was a rarity among my fellow student radicals, some of whom may have heard of it but few of whom actually read it.  And I certainly doubt that any more than a tiny handful of today’s protesters are even aware of Marcuse, much less dedicated to the promotion of his ideas.  I will also acknowledge, on the other hand, that “Repressive Tolerance” is not one of the philosopher’s more profound or persuasive writings and that important elements of its argument are questionable.  That said, however, Carter’s overwrought alarmism is both simplistic and misleading.  It merits a response, one that situates Marcuse’s essay in a broader scholarly discussion of tolerance, including the remarkable little book, A Critique of Pure Tolerance, in which the essay first appeared with pieces by Robert Paul Wolff and Barrington Moore, Jr.

To begin, the question of tolerance or toleration may encompass but is hardly identical to the question of free speech.  As the concept’s leading intellectual historian, Rainer Forst, has demonstrated exhaustively, discussions of tolerance go back to the ancient Greeks and Romans.  In those discussions “the demand for toleration is not situated above or beyond social disputes but emerges within them, so that its concrete shape is always tied to a particular social and historical context.”  Tolerance may be understood as “vertical,” a form of state policy, or “horizontal,” exercised mutually by members of a community in their behavior toward each other.  Historically, tolerance arises as a mode of managing religious conflict and not within the search for truth in the scholarly sense.  Today, as another scholar of the subject, Wendy Brown, points out, tolerance has expanded its object from faith to identity.  [Space is lacking here for a more thorough consideration of this literature, but those interested may find helpful a short book, The Power of Tolerance, which includes a debate between Brown and Forst.]

Tolerance is plagued by paradox.  Most obvious is that in order to safeguard tolerance it may be necessary to be intolerant towards those who are intolerant.  But tolerance is also, in a sense, both authoritarian and majoritarian, since it is those in authority or in the majority who must agree to tolerate difference and dissent.  Hence tolerance will tend to favor the persistence of existing differences and inequalities.  This was in fact Marcuse’s main argument: “Generally, the function and value of tolerance depend on the equality prevalent in the society in which tolerance is practiced. . .  In other words, tolerance is an end in itself only when it is truly universal, practiced by the rulers as well as by the ruled.”  But in divided societies “the conditions of tolerance are ‘loaded’: they are determined and defined by the institutionalized inequality . . . i.e., by the class structure of society.”

“The liberating force of democracy was the chance it gave to effective dissent,” Marcuse acknowledges.  “But with the concentration of economic and political power and the integration of opposites in a society which uses technology as an instrument of domination, effective dissent is blocked where it could freely emerge.”  Hence Marcuse was raising a critical question I posed in part III of this series: “How can we ensure that all viewpoints may be fully aired, considered, discussed and either accepted or rejected fairly, when some viewpoints are so structurally disadvantaged compared to those with far greater access to power?”

“The telos of tolerance is truth,” Marcuse states.  By this he refers to the classically liberal argument, articulated most famously in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.  According to that argument we tolerate speech not because, as may be the case with religious faith, there is no objective truth to be found or because truth must be a compromise among faiths, but precisely because there is objective truth that can be discovered, but only in the contest of ideas.  However, Marcuse contends, such a contest cannot be rightly decided politically, much less democratically, given the power inequities of society and their extension into intellectual life.  Hence his controversial conclusion that “the realization of the objective of tolerance would call for intolerance toward prevailing policies, attitudes, opinions and the extension of tolerance to policies, attitudes, and opinions which are outlawed or suppressed.”  In short, for intolerance as a means of “liberating” tolerance.

The question of toleration’s relationship to scholarly inquiry was explored (more persuasively than by Marcuse, in my view) by Barrington Moore, Jr., in his essay on “Tolerance and the Scientific Outlook,” the second contribution in the 1965 Critique.  Moore’s argument may be encapsulated in this quote:

According to the scientific outlook, every idea, including the most dangerous and apparently absurd ones, deserves to have its credentials examined.  Still, examining credentials means exactly that.  It does not mean accepting the idea.  Toleration implies the existence of a distinctive procedure for testing ideas, resembling due process in the realm of law.  No one holds that under due process every accused person must be acquitted.  A growing and changing procedure for the testing of ideas lies at the heart of any conception of tolerance tied to the scientific outlook.  That is genuine tolerance.  It has nothing to do with a cacophony of screaming fakers marketing political nostrums in the public square.  Nor does the real article exist where various nuances of orthodoxy pass for academic freedom.

As I understand them, both Moore and Marcuse distinguish tolerance of ideas from tolerance of difference more generally.  Both would suggest that ideas must be tolerated only prior to their decisive refutation.  At least that would be the case in a university.  In this sense their attitude to tolerance resembles Post’s distinction between free speech in the societal marketplace of ideas and the more restrictive limits of academic freedom.

In his contribution to the Critique, “Beyond Tolerance,” Robert Paul Wolff identified tolerance as the “virtue” of democratic pluralism.  However, he wrote, “the application of the theory of pluralism always favors the groups in existence against those in process of formation. . . .  pluralism is a philosophy of equality and justice whose concrete application supports inequality by ignoring the existence of certain legitimate social groups.”  As a consequence, “the unwillingness of the government [and, I might add, the university-HR] to impose its own standards or rules results not in a free play of competing groups, but in the enforcement of the preferences of the existing predominant interests. . . .  The theory says justice will emerge from the free interplay of opposed groups; the practice tends to destroy that interplay.”

Taken together the critique of tolerance offered by Wolff, Moore, and Marcuse is a powerful one and far more sophisticated than the similar arguments offered recently by Ulrich Baer and Tracey Yoder discussed in part III of this series.  But only Marcuse offered the radical remedy that so terrifies Carter.  In a postscript published in 1968, Marcuse concluded,

The tolerance which is the life element, the token of a free society, will never be the gift of the powers that be; it can, under the prevailing conditions of tyranny by the majority, only be won in the sustained effort of radical minorities, willing to break this tyranny and to work for the emergence of a free and sovereign majority — minorities intolerant, militantly intolerant and disobedient to the rules of behavior which tolerate destruction and suppression.

But do those “conditions of tyranny” prevail in the contemporary American university?  In The Ideal of the University, published a few years after the Critique and in the wake of the 1968 student rebellion at Columbia where he was a member of the faculty, Wolff stepped away from such an assumption.  While sympathetic to the radical critique of the university then on offer from those arguably inspired by Marcuse’s approach, Wolff nonetheless concluded — as I would today — that “a great many colleges and universities are much freer, much more conducive to serious questioning and open debate, much more committed to human values than any other major institution in the United States. .  . .  There, if anywhere, new and deeper attacks on the evils of American society will be mounted.  Here again, the opposition role of the university flows from its very nature as a center of free inquiry.” (emphasis in original)

What then are we to make of the relationship between tolerance and free expression?  To be honest, as this lengthy series of posts should suggest, I am not entirely certain, torn as I am between the critique of tolerance and the concomitant meritocratic definition of academic freedom on the one hand, and my sense of the university as an ideal locus for the sort of unfettered “testing of ideas,” even rotten ones, that Mill celebrated and Moore sought to identify with the scientific outlook.  As Wendy Brown puts it, “To remove the scales from our eyes about the innocence of tolerance in relation to power is not thereby to reject tolerance as useless or worse.”  However, she continues,

When the ideal or practice of tolerance is substituted for justice or equality, when sensitivity to or even respect for the other is substituted for justice for the other, when historically induced suffering is reduced to “difference” or to a medium of “offense,” when suffering as such is reduced to a problem of personal feeling, then the field of political battle and political transformation is replaced with an agenda of behavioral, attitudinal, and emotional practices. While such practices often have their value, substituting a tolerant attitude or ethos for political redress of inequality or violent exclusions not only reifies politically produced differences but reduces political action and justice projects to sensitivity training, or what Richard Rorty has called an “improvement in manners.” A justice project is replaced with a therapeutic or behavioral one. [Regulating Aversion, p. 11, 16]

In other words, current controversies over free speech on campus, “microaggressions,” “safe spaces,” harassment, and “dehumanization” are not about civility, behavior, respect, or, as Fish might have it, the regulation and management of student life.  They are at root about justice and ultimately, power, and can only be addressed intellectually through genuinely open and critical debate leading to concrete action.  As Wolff concluded from his experience at Columbia, “there is not a single ‘extracurricular’ campus activity which can beat the appeal of a free and honest interplay of ideas.”  When campus movements arise “the problem . . . is not to get students talking about real issues once classes are canceled but rather to get them to stop!”  And thank heaven for that.

This is the last of a four-part series.  Part I may be accessed here; part II may be found here; part III may be found here







One thought on “On Outside Speakers and Academic Freedom, Part IV

  1. Post may not take his theory as far as Fish, but I think they share the erroneous notion that free speech is not an essential part of academic freedom. This anti-free speech version of academic freedom fails to recognize the complexity of colleges. Post’s belief that a college can be reduced to “teaching and research” and that everything else (even extracurricular speakers) must be justified in service of those ideals, is a deeply erroneous and dangerous viewpoint.

    Not only does it threaten the idea that universities cannot ban invited speakers from campus, but by this standard it becomes very difficult to come up with an argument to protect extramural utterances, as Post acknowledges in his book with Matt Finkin, For the Common Good. After all, what does a professor’s tweets about politics have to do with his math classes and statistical research? What harm to good teaching and research comes from firing professors with dumb opinions or banning Milo and Spencer? The answer is, a lot of harm, because free speech and academic freedom must be deeply interwoven concepts.

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