Free Speech in the Academy

We should disagree with disagreeable ideas. We should challenge expressions of prejudice and address actions that discriminate against persons based on the race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. Disagreement and protest are speech acts we must defend. Even civil disobedience has its place in moving opinion. However, the efficacy of any action needs to be considered in terms of all its possible consequences and must take care not to undermine the democratic principles of a free and open society. What is more, while it is one thing to disagree with a point of view, it is quite another to regulate it.

The disruption of events sponsored by conservative students (for example, events that bring to campus professional provocateurs such as Milo Yiannopoulos), especially when these actions result in fewer of these events (for example, because of security costs and safety concerns) or administrators or student organizations acting to make it more difficult for conservatives to put on programming that reflects their political and cultural opinions provides conservative politicians with the ammunition they need to justify reductions in state appropriations to university and colleges. A conservative politician will take an accounting of left-wing versus right-wing speakers and events and show that the ratio tilts left, confirming what is perceived, namely that the university has a left-wing bias. It follows that citizens should be concerned that they’re paying for a range of opinion that does not reflect the range of opinion in their community.

Whenever conservative students – and liberal students who have a robust understanding of free speech – are disciplined for political incorrectness, violating speech codes, engaging in cultural appropriation, causing offense, and so on, i.e. when administrators and faculty discipline those with opinions judged to violate official norms of civility and tolerance, this is more evidence reinforcing conservative claims about how narrowly defined acceptable discourse has become at the very institution that should be the space par excellence where ideas and opinions are most freely expressed and interrogated.

Suppression of offensive opinions is the evidence conservatives and free speech activists use to show that universities have become places of indoctrination and thought control – and not the places of education and enlightenment they claim to be. Suppression of offensive speech undermines the institution’s claims to stand for tolerance and inclusivity. For an institution proclaiming enlightenment ideals represent its core values, inclusivity must include tolerance of opinions with which members of various groups disagree and even find offensive. A right to utter opinions with which the majority – or the authority – agrees is superfluous, an empty self-congratulatory gesture.

This is not merely a public relations problem. When universities give into left-wing suppression of speech and expression, when administrators restrict opinion on the basis of rigid doctrines of multiculturalism and restrictive regimes of inclusivity, they are creating an environment in which a segment of the population, composed of individuals who could benefit from the dialectic (defined here in its traditional meaning as the art of interrogating the truth of opinions), are marginalized and frustrated. Norms of acceptability reflecting particular sets of politics that one not only does not accept but has not role in developing is alienating and contrary to education.

The suppression of disagreeable opinions serves to push them underground, to cause their recoding into less ascertainable expressions of sentiment that still need challenging. Restriction breeds resentment; acceptable and allowed opinions are uttered freely and remain inadequately challenged. The campus community loses out on countless moments to have a productive debate about the opinions that others find so disagreeable. Those – on all sides – who hold disagreeable opinions miss out on an opportunity to grow and develop in their beliefs and values. Modes of power and control that signal their defensiveness through the taking of offense go unchallenged.

For example, criticism of Islam is often felt as speech that offends the listener’s deeply held religious belief. It is often characterized as a form of prejudice called “Islamophobia,” which makes it appear as if it is analogous to racially derogatory speech. In a class in which systems of patriarchy and misogyny are being interrogated, Islam, with its penchant for strict standards of modesty, subordinating women in law and culture, and demanding expectations of heteronormativity, will, if the instructor is determined to meet her obligations to the course objectives, come into view. But her criticism, recast as “Islamophobia,” could fall under a university’s civility, tolerance, and inclusivity doctrine on the grounds that a student or students in the class found the lecture and discussion offensive. The offensive taken is a manifestation to the enlightenment process in which a gendered system of power is being threatened. But without a robust policy defending free speech, the opportunity becomes negated by the desire to keep the ideology immune from challenge.

The academy has to permit the maximum degree of freedom of opinion in order to deliver on its promise to enlighten the students and help them become full citizens in a democratic society. For a crucial component of citizenship development involves cultivating the ability to express disagreeable opinions and interrogate them in a common search for the truth. The university that guarantees to its students free and open spaces in which ideas can be challenged and opinions interrogated, and prepares them to be offended by the ideas and opinions and others, is the university that is meeting its obligations in a democracy.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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