Widgets Magazine


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 miles.unterreiner@gmail.com.

  • Z

    Wow, I actually mostly agree with you knowing that I come from a totally opposite ideology than you.

    Here is another example I read this week that chilled my to my bones. Should Research on Race and IQ Be Banned?** | Cross-Check, Scientific American Blog Network http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/2013/05/16/should-research-on-race-and-iq-be-banned/?WT.mc_id=SA_sharetool_Twitter via @sciam

    This really bothered me because can science be even science if you can’t question? With just this one topic alone I would say the Chinese are doing race and IQ research and usually if something is banned then somebody finds someway to do it, If you look at history banning, prohibition, etc… has never worked. I know from being able to do my own research and allowing myself to be open minded and at least venture to see another point of view it caused me to change my views on war.

    On just this one topic of race and I.Q. –just what if something was found out from researching this topic that could actually help a certain race or say lower a I.Q.–meaning a diiferent way to educate, a diiferent approach to health, or even punishment and incarceration.

    All I know from my life so far is that it that people and things are not equal and whatever you try to do to change it, it is still never going to be equal. Everybody is different and if you can research, question, debate and try to convence willingly that society is much better off than when you ban, not allow discussion or force an indiviual to do something.

  • disqus_1xC1k8zN1J

    Hi Miles,

    I really liked the piece. I agree with the conclusions and associated rationale. Part of the power of free speech is that it seems very much justified from many different vantage points or frameworks. I’d like to respond with a few thoughts that are more building on what you said than trying to oppose any of it. I used headings as the thoughts are not necessarily presented in a linear order.

    Beyond true or false

    First, I’d argue for expanding the interpretation of the value of free speech. In the quote by Mill, he uses the language of true or false. I’m a huge admirer of Mill and his work, yet I’d prefer to see the shades of gray here. Boolean reasoning seems effective for discussing some kinds of statements, particularly those around verifiable and measurable facts (such as the location of Hoover Tower in an agreed upon coordinate system); here it makes sense to say that something is true or false. Sometimes it’s more of a case of what would be better. For instance, two versions of a piece of legislation may both do good, yet they most likely have trade-offs between particular interests and objectives. Additionally, there could be subjectivity, uncertainty of information and other factors that mean that the evaluation of statements is less binary and more a matter of degree. Mill touches on this in other areas, yet the points I wanted to emphasize is that free speech is often an effective way for evaluating views or decisions, rather than just determining whether they are ‘true’ or ‘false’.

    Free speech as a process

    The rates of change of different types of information vary significantly. Some types of information, such as particular geographic measurements, often change nontrivially in times spans of decades or centuries. Other types of information have shorter shelf-lives and may be more time-sensitive, such as in the former example of what bill should be voted on next week. This means that it’s not about reaching a fixed point: the world changes around us and so it helps to have a process for reaching good decisions that will be robust over time. In short, many of the instances strongly justifying free speech do not exist yet.

    Recomputation vs. Stagnation

    Many people approach this process through using different invariants, such as principles, values, rights, etc (i.e. the rhetoric around “these are my principles”). In some senses, free speech is such an invariant. In general, I think these can provide value when used in a non-absolute manner; it would otherwise be very costly to recompute our views all of the time. However, it’s worth continually re-evaluating what invariants are adopted to avoid stagnation. Discussion and dialogue is a powerful way to do so.


    To this end, I’d argue that there is value in maintaining a sense of fallibalism and treating your thoughts as working hypotheses. It’s suboptimal to just remember your conclusions and positions because if you can also remember their justifications then you give yourself far more scope to reevaluate your positions when you encounter new information. Indeed, if you are advocating a particular cause, it’s worth staying open minded about the merits of doing so. For instance, it would suck to be path-dependent in your advocacy of something that you might otherwise not fight for, just because you started advocating for it and didn’t maintain an open mind. Basically, it’s worth continually debugging your views.

    Thinking > Identification

    In my personal opinion, an unfortunate aspect of the American system is the extent to which people determine their views based on identification. Many seem to support particular views in large part because they identify as a Democrat or Republican. Few people are probably in favor of just accepting the dogma of an entity that they identify with, yet this is de-facto what appears to occur. However, when you actually look at the positions of an entity in detail, I conjecture that you would have to be highly conformist to agree, or disagree, with everything that either party puts forward. I would argue that it is worth striving to be an individual thinker. Aiming to do so will probably improve the views you end up with, and your ability to evaluate differing positions. So, I am in favor of reaching ones viewpoints through independent thinking informed by many varied inputs and sources (i.e. I like that you read the National Review). Let’s be conscious about what is influencing our views and think. It was all made up by other people anyway.

    What would be constructive to do?

    My (evolving) 2 cents on this matter: when you encounter speech you disagree with, ask why you disagree. Figure out their conclusions, reasons, evidence etc. Understand your own. Then incorporate points that you agree with and be strengthened in your resolve on those you don’t agree with.

    Concluding remarks

    The world is more sophisticated than what it is often reduced to. I conjecture that it helps to be empowered by more information; civic engagement often seems to be about continually striving for deeper insight and understanding of the nuance that is there. Upholding free speech is a way to further this interest. I currently hold it as an invariant, yet I’d be happy to hear from people why they think doing so is not the most effective approach. I’ll assimilate their points that I agree with and develop improved capabilities to push back on those that I don’t. I see free speech participation as an opportunity; those that don’t will miss out. I commend you for your advocacy of this area.

    Thank you for the excellent opinion piece.