Credit Where Credit Is Due

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I have been scathing about Geoffrey R. Stone, a law professor at the University of Chicago. I vented my wrath about his “liberal” casuistry in “Killing Free Speech in Order to Save It” (2005) and “Liberal Claptrap” (2006). I must admit, however, that I like and agree with most of Stone’s recent essay, “Free Expression in Peril.”

Stone writes, for example, that “[w]e live today in an era of political correctness in which students themselves demand censorship, and colleges, afraid to offend those students, too often surrender academic freedom.” Stone then catalogs some of the many offenses against free speech that have been committed by students, often with the aid of administrators. Stone then asks

[h]ow did we get here? It was not long ago when college students were demanding the right to free speech. Now they demand the right to be free from speech that they find offensive or upsetting.

One often-expressed theory is that students of this generation, unlike their predecessors, are weak, fragile, and emotionally unstable. They’ve been raised, the argument goes, by parents who have protected, rewarded, and celebrated them in every way from the time they were infants. Therefore they’ve never learned to deal with challenge, defeat, uncertainty, anxiety, stress, insult, or fear. They are emotionally incapable of dealing with challenge.

But if that is so, then the proper role of a university is not to protect and pamper them but to prepare them for the difficulties of the real world. The goal should not be to shield them from discomfort, insult, and insecurity, but to enable them to be effective citizens. If their parents have, indeed, failed them, then their colleges and universities should save them from themselves.

There is, however, another possibility. It is that students, or at least some students, have always felt this way, but until now they were too intimidated, too shy, too deferential to speak up. If so, this generation of college students deserves credit, because instead of remaining silent and oppressed, they have the courage to demand respect, equality, and safety.

I think there is an element of truth in both of these perspectives, but I am inclined to think that the former explains more than the latter.

I agree with Stone. Today’s students seem to be spoiled brats, and their anti-free speech behavior is nothing better than a tantrum.

Stone, later in the essay, poses and answers some questions:

Should students and faculty be allowed to express whatever views they want, however offensive they might be to others?

Yes. Absolutely.

Should those who disagree and who are offended be allowed to condemn that speech and those speakers in the most vehement terms? Yes. Absolutely.

Should those who are offended and who disagree be allowed to demand that the university punish those who have offended them? Yes. Absolutely.

Should the university punish those whose speech annoys, offends, and insults others? Absolutely not.

That is the core meaning of academic freedom.

Though he does wimp out at that point:

Does that mean the university’s hands are tied? No.

A university should educate its students about the importance of civility and mutual respect. These values should be reinforced by education and example, not by censorship.

A university should encourage disagreement, argument, and debate. It should instill in its students and faculty members the importance of winning the day by facts, by ideas, and by persuasion, rather than by force, obstruction, or censorship. For a university to fulfill its most fundamental mission, it must be a safe space for even the most loathsome, odious, offensive, disloyal arguments. Students should be encouraged to be tough, fearless, rigorous, and effective advocates and critics.

At the same time, a university has to recognize that in our society, flawed as it is, the costs of free speech will fall most heavily on those who feel the most marginalized and unwelcome. All of us feel that way sometimes, but the individuals who bear the brunt of free speech — at least of certain types of free speech — often include racial minorities; religious minorities; women; gay people, lesbians, and transsexuals; and immigrants. Universities must be sensitive to that reality.

Although they should not attempt to “solve” this problem by censorship, universities should support students who feel vulnerable, marginalized, silenced, and demeaned. They should help them learn how to speak up, how to respond effectively, how to challenge those whose attitudes, whose words, and whose beliefs offend and appall them. The world is not a safe space, and we must enable our graduates to win the battles they’ll have to fight in years to come.

What about conservatives who believe in free speech, free markets, traditional morality, and the defense of America and the aforementioned principles that seem to be disappearing from the land? Speak up, Professor Stone, I can’t hear you.

Anyway, Stone continues [with my occasional comment in brackets]:

But hard cases remain. As simple as it may be to state a principle, it is always much more difficult to apply it to concrete situations. So let me leave you with a few cases to ponder.

A sociology professor gives a talk on campus condemning homosexuality as immoral and calling on “normal” students to steer clear of “fags, perverts, and sexual degenerates.” What, if anything, should the chair of the sociology department do? In my judgment, this is a classic case of academic freedom. The professor is well within his rights to offer such opinions, however offensive others might find them.

A student hangs a Confederate flag, a swastika, an image of an aborted fetus, or a “Vote for Trump” sign on the door of his dorm room. What, if anything, should administrators do? The university should not pick and choose which messages to permit and which to ban. That is classic censorship. But in the context of a residence hall, where students are a bit of a captive audience, the university can have a content-neutral rule that bans all signs on dorm-room doors. [This is fair enough, but wimpish.]

The dean of a university’s law school goes on Fox News and says “Abortion is murder. We should fire any female faculty member and expel any female student who has had an abortion.” The university president is then inundated with complaints from alumni saying, in effect, “I’ll never give another nickel to your damn school as long as she remains dean.” What should the president do? A dean or other administrator at a university has distinctive responsibilities. If she engages in behavior, including expression, that renders her effectively incapable of fulfilling her administrative responsibilities, then she can be removed from her position. [As a former executive, I concur.] This is necessary to the core functioning of the institution. At the same time, though, if the dean is also a faculty member, she cannot be disciplined as a faculty member for the exercise of academic freedom.

We needn’t rely solely on hypotheticals. There was the situation at DePaul University in which a student group invited a highly controversial speaker who maintains, among other things, that there is no wage gap for women, that as a gay man he can attest that one’s sexual orientation is purely a matter of choice, and that white men have fewer advantages than women and African-Americans. A group of student protesters disrupted the event by shouting, ultimately causing the talk to be canceled. They maintained that their shouting was merely the exercise of free speech.

What should the university do in such circumstances? Should it permit the protest? Arrest the protesters on the spot? Allow them to protest and then punish them after the fact?

Such a disruption is not in any way an exercise of free expression. Although students can protest the event in other ways, they cannot prevent either speakers or listeners from engaging in a dialogue they wish to engage in without obstruction. In such circumstances, the protesters should be removed and disciplined for their behavior. (DePaul’s president, the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, apologized to the speaker but also criticized “speakers of his ilk” for being “more entertainers and self-serving provocateurs than the public intellectuals they purport to be.” [Holtschneider is clearly a thoroughly indoctrinated leftist.])

Or consider the incident last year at the University of Oklahoma when a group of fraternity brothers, in a private setting, chanted a racist song. Someone who was present at the time filmed the event and circulated it online. Was the university’s president, David Boren, right to expel the students? In my judgment, no.

This statement occurs in the middle of Stone’s essay:

Faced with the continuing challenges to academic freedom at American universities, the University of Chicago’s president, Robert J. Zimmer, charged a faculty committee last year with the task of drafting a formal statement on freedom of expression. The goal of that committee, which I chaired, was to stake out Chicago’s position on these issues. That statement has since become a model for a number of other universities.

The work of Stone’s committee found its way into the candid and refreshing letter of acceptance from the University of Chicago’s Dean of Students to incoming freshmen; for example:

Once here you will discover that one of the University of Chicago’s defining characteristics is our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression. This is captured in the University’s faculty report on freedom of expression. Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn, without fear of censorship. Civility and mutual respect are vital to all of us, and freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others. You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

Two-point-nine cheers for Geoffrey Stone; three cheers for the University of Chicago.

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