Here we go again, shouting at each other about free speech and the university. For all our yelling about speech, and our insistence on rights and principles, it means little unless we’re also willing to reckon with institution and symmetry. Otherwise, we might as well just hold our breath.
Take yesterday, for example. Georgetown University (where I teach) invited Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions to lecture us on free speech. Sessions championed the noble idea that opinion and expression should not be censored. Insisting that a strong and healthy society is one that does not restrain unpopular speech, Sessions claimed, “Freedom of thought and speech on American campus are under attack. The American university was once the center of academic freedom, a place of robust debate, a forum for the competition of ideas. But it is transforming into an echo chamber of political correctness and homogeneous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.”
Conservative commentators applauded Sessions as he stuck it to the (liberal establishment) Man. No surprise, for decades they have been claiming that free speech is under attack, particularly at universities. As someone who grew up in a conservative community, I understand this language and see how it resonates. But as someone who now works in higher education, I have to say that this view is based in a very poor understanding of what universities are.
Because ideas and deliberation are so central to the institutional mission of universities, they have historically made it a priority to host a very wide range of people who might fairly be called "experts." This includes scholars and scientists, of course, but also practitioners, officials, leaders, writers, athletes, entrepreneurs, poets, and artists. Is there any other contemporary institution so willing to acknowledge and promote such a range of knowledge? I doubt it.
At the same time, universities are more than soapboxes. Unlike Hyde Park, we engage in scientific research and teaching and here the value of scholarly debate—and evidence—reigns supreme. Whether or not universities always live up these ideals, they form the ethical core of the place. And because of that, the university is usually (but not always) poor soil for ideas which fail to pass scientific and scholarly review. It has little to do with popularity. White supremacist explanations of the world used to be quite popular at universities. Same with male chauvinism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Now, these explanations melt like snowflakes in a warm classroom. Why? Years of informed counter-arguments produced by new generations of researchers. Note: this doesn’t mean racism and sexism have disappeared from campuses, only that their old intellectual foundations are now broadly and routinely questioned.
Somehow, all this is lost not just on conservatives but also on some liberals who, looking for balance, have a hard time seeing the demands of right-wing free-speech warriors for what they are. While excoriating Sessions this week, Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan bent over backwards to concede that the right-wing is right on one point. “It’s wrong,” she wrote, “When far-right pundits are prevented from speaking on campuses because of liberal protests run amok — as has happened at universities in California, Vermont and elsewhere.”
Sullivan went on to highlight Sessions’ hypocrisy on the subject and the fact that Sessions’ talk took place in a safe space purged of protesters. Nonetheless, Sullivan demanded that universities play a particular role in American society and play it in particular way.
This is the moment where we need to inject the notion of symmetry into the debate. Or rather asymmetry. Why are we acting like universities are the only kind of institution where public speech takes place? I live in Washington, D.C. which is home to many very talky institutions besides universities. Just try to count the number of foundations, funds, institutes, think-tanks and organizations that host public lectures every day. Similarly, corporations routinely host speakers and mount lectures as so do military and intelligence agencies. Add to this all the sermons and talks at churches, temples and mosques. That’s a lot of events and booking agents, but who in this town is worried about empty lecterns? There are enough think-hatcheries and consulting firms to keep the streams of public speech stocked forever.
Which brings me to my point: if we were to count the number of public lectures that take place in the District during any given week, we would find that universities are certainly not the leading institutional site of public talks. So let's apply our principles to the entire spectrum of talky institutions. For instance, let's ask the Washington Institute for Near East Policy to host a talk by Iraq Veterans Against War. Let's demand that the American Petroleum Institute convene a panel of Lakota Nation leaders to talk about tribal sovereignty. Let's make HUD invite public housing activists to give a briefing on the community effects of privatization.
All of this underscores the great assymetry in our conversation. Why are we talking only about universities? Why aren’t we insisting that Citicorp, for instance, invite Naomi Klein to speak at its next corporate retreat? Is it because we think boards of directors deserve more safe space than teenage students? And why are we so hung up on liberal universities? Why aren't we asking Liberty University why it has blackballed Noam Chomsky from speaking? Or is it that, unlike liberal universities, Christian colleges and corporations are immune to the dangers of echo chamber life?
We know the answer to these questions: this conversation is not really about free speech at the university. Instead, it is about the frustration the far right feels that its ideas are not taken seriously by mainstream research communities. For their part, liberal allies who talk about balance need to apply that same sense of balance to all the other institutions of public speech.
Free-speech absolutists are welcome to continue their targeting of universities, but they should realize that the primary purpose of a university is not speech for its own sake, but rather speech that is knowledgeable, testable and informed. If free-speech activists want to be taken seriously on campuses, they should do what people do at universities: study and conduct research. Everything else is just talk—and has no intrinsic right to university platforms.