Editor’s Note: Michael Roth is the president of Wesleyan University. A historian, he was formerly the president of the California College of the Arts. His most recent books are Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech and Political Correctness on College Campuses and Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters. The views expressed here are his. Read more opinion on CNN.
As the new school year gets underway and the presidential campaign heats up, it won’t be long before we hear once again critics bewailing that free speech is no longer a core value at colleges and universities. Through a well-funded effort by conservative political organizations, already more than a dozen state legislatures have passed so-called campus free speech bills.
Major research universities will likely be under a spotlight, criticized for supposedly providing a platform for political craziness rather than innovative research, and surely there will be liberal arts college professors labeled “illiberal liberals” (or worse) before the first semester is out. Those with political beliefs they believe unpopular on campus will defend themselves by simultaneously saying they feel forced to self-censor while also calling for more freedom of expression.
Along with appeals to free speech, we will also (paradoxically) hear calls for civility, for soft self-censorship in the name of decorum. In fact, we already have, with Cindy McCain’s Acts of Civility initiative and in the wake of Bret Stephens’ reaction to a tweet from a George Washington professor. At a time when violent racism has become ingrained in immigration policy, at a time when hatred in public discourse has become an accepted part of national politics, it seems both naïve and inconsistent to tell college students that embracing civility along with a rough and tumble marketplace of ideas is a cure for our ills.
The unregulated free market approach to speech is not a viable path for higher education – it’s both misleading and airily abstract. Real harm to real people results when racism and sexism amplify hateful speech. Giving a platform to overtly racist groups, or to speakers intent on targeting particular portions of a student body, is an exercise in intimidation more than intellectual debate. Nor will the free market approach likely result in giving conservative traditions more consideration on campus.
Those who simply call for “more speech” in the marketplace of ideas can be oblivious to the difficulties that under-represented conservative ideas face in getting a fair hearing. It’s not enough to set procedures that claim to allow anybody to come to a campus to say anything at all. For example, given the prejudicial filters for access to campus platforms, we need an affirmative action program to bring thoughtful conservative and religious scholars to institutions that pride themselves on research and selectivity. Without proactive leadership, we’ll wind up with only the occasional outrageous right-wing pseudo-scholar coming to campus to incite outraged reactions from students, followed by puffed-up indignation from opinion writers.
As I argue in Safe Enough Spaces, a deeper problem with the free market approach – and the protests that free speech on campus is no more – stems from a fundamental misconception about what goes on at colleges. The classroom has never been an unregulated market, and neither are scientific laboratories or academic journals. They all have procedures to ensure that inquiry and discussion are legitimately used to advance work in a particular area, and there are judgments to be made by those with qualifications about what counts as legitimate. Avoiding the appearance of making judgments by appealing to the marketplace of ideas is, at best, disingenuous.
Older liberals today making the case for free speech and civility on campus are far more likely to talk about Berkeley in the 1960s than they are to discuss the more recent weaponization of libertarian approaches to expression adopted by the courts since the Citizens United ruling protecting the speech rights of corporations. And when they talk about civility, they seem to be thinking of dinner table conversations rather than student protest. Some older liberals may wax eloquent about the Free Speech movement and People’s Park, but they rarely repeat the powerful words of its leader, Mario Savio: “There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop!” It wasn’t civility this leftist icon of free speech was calling for; it was passionate disruption.
Freedom of expression is absolutely crucial for inquiry and teaching, but many of those who wave the flag for free speech on campus today mistakenly argue that any regulation of content, even when the intention is to protect the vulnerable, puts us on a path to authoritarian censorship. The call for the free exchange of ideas at all costs isn’t persuasive to many college students today who recognize that when markets are unregulated, real pollution, and sometimes lasting damage, occurs – and that historically it’s groups that have been vulnerable who are most consistently wounded by hate speech (and worse).
In the last several years, such pollution has often come from right-wing provocateurs who speak at institutions of higher learning to add credence and energy to racist, homophobic, and sexist attitudes and practices. This dynamic increases in intensity as harmful effects are repeated. When those from dominant groups or in positions of campus authority insist that this is not real harm because it’s not physical violence, or when First Amendment fundamentalists claim that any constraint on speech is a step on the slippery slope toward tyranny, we can detect the ideology of market deregulation at the heart of free speech dogmatism. Students who have seen deregulators’ bold attempts to solidify existing hierarchies recognize that power matters in regard to speech as well as other things. It’s never the case that everybody gets to speak; not everyone gets heard.
The task of colleges and universities is neither to produce a pure, unregulated market of ideas nor to champion the civility of the drawing room. Our task is to promote inquiry, not outrage – to promote critical engagement, not condescension. In that regard, we have to do more to increase intellectual diversity in higher education.
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Administrative leaders and faculty need to go beyond a defense of the First Amendment to bring a wide range of ideas to their campuses. In a culture of intellectual diversity, students learn from one another how to understand the logic of viewpoints different from their own. There is no formula or litmus test for this. In contrast to the demagoguery we are sure to witness on the campaign trail, it’s our job as educators to curate environments of productive heterodoxy, environments in which students can grow more sure of themselves by being more open to others.