Campus Free Speech, or: the Pundits' Dumping Ground

Sometimes history repeats itself, first as news, then as opinion. Last year, liberal and rightwing media reported chilling incidents of how free speech was under attack on university campuses. UC Berkeley students ‘rioted’ in February to prevent Milo Yiannopoulous from speaking. In March, Middlebury College students expressed their opposition to Charles Murray’s invitation in the most ‘uncivil’ terms. In September UC Berkeley administrators spent $600,000 to protect the free speech rights of Ben Shapiro. In that same month, my university invited Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions to give a talk in which he employed all authority of his office to denounce campus illiberalism. (See my discussion of that here).

Months passed. After Charlottesville, the news spotlight turned from campuses. Occasionally a campus-related incident occurred, but its significance was usually inconclusive. Case in point: Christina Hoff Sommers spoke on 5 March at Lewis and Clark Law School. Students shouted at her. She delivered her talk.  

While no longer a mainstay of news reporting, such events have now become editorial rocket fuel. Last year, New York Times editorial and opinion page gnawed this bone many times over. In recent weeks, they’ve picked it up again as if it were fresh.

So here they are again, condemning the supposed illiberalism of campuses again. For all their practice, they’re no wiser than they were a year ago. They seem to relish nothing more than the hypocrisy they believe to have discovered. J’accuse, they cry: If liberal arts colleges are so liberal, why are they so illiberal when it comes to views they oppose?

The same gotcha. The only thing that has changed is that a strange alliance has now congealed into a giant scab of centrists, liberals, and putatively 'thoughtful' conservatives, claiming that campus free speech rightly belongs to them. 

These events are taking place at universities and so it is understandable that many observers would dissect the merits and constraints of free speech as an issue of higher education. But still, the focus on the campus comes at the expense of many things, including an honest appraisal of public speech, rights and power in this country. By limiting the discussion of free speech to the university, our pundits are willfully drawing attention away from the broader field on which these debates and struggles are being played out. Imagining that free speech is a ‘campus problem’ is like watching only the football plays that happen between the 10-yard line and the end zone. Those might be some of the most exciting moments of a particular game, but they won’t tell you much about the sport.

Many Institutions of Public Speech

Universities sponsor a lot of public talks. But compared to the actual spectrum of public talks held at public and private institutions? Campuses are at most a sideshow.

Where I live (Washington, D.C.), there are dozens of foundations, funds, institutes, thinktanks and organizations that host public lectures every day and every week. There are public lecture series at the World Bank, the International Monetary FundThe Brookings InstitutionThe Wilson CenterThe Washington Institute for Near East PolicyThe American Enterprise InstituteThe Cato Institute to name just a few. 

Similarly, various kinds of corporations—such as RandGoldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley—commonly host speakers and organize lectures. Similarly, military and intelligence agencies—like the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, and the NSA—host public speaking events all the time. Government agencies—such as NASA and the Department of the Interior—do as well. (Seriously—look at any of these links to see how much public speaking is going on in these venues. All of it exempted from the norms governing campus speech.)

Then there are the weekly and bi-weekly sermons and talks at churches, temples and mosques. Public readings and forums at museums, bookstores, cafes and libraries. In this alone, there are hundreds of full-time booking agents and planners, hundreds of venues, and large audiences that attend public talks on any given day.

The kind of public speaking takes place at centers of financial and political power may not then be free speech in the way it is defined at universities. But then again, it usually far more consequential. Its authority—in the form of word power directly informing policy and shaping deed—is often more palpable than the kinds of campus form of free speech. More importantly, it is so powerful that its status as public speech is wholly exempted from debates about free public speech. Quite a trick. Well played. The football metaphor again: if controlling the midfield is core to the game, doing it invisibly is pure genius. 

Why the University?

Given this reality, why is the campus the focus of so much concern? The answer seems to derive, in part, from a deeply-held though unexamined conviction. People expect universities to act not just differently, but contrarily to almost all other institutions in American society. People expect universities to serve as disinterested hosts for a liberal—that is, an extremely broad and diverse—range of speakers, positions and topics. We expect that because we believe that the education process must involve experiences of hearing opinions that are different from one’s one, that these experiences stretch our thinking.

In contrast, most other institutions that sponsor public speech are maintained precisely in order to promote specific partisan, policy, commercial and ideological goals. This is true even of those institutions dedicated to promoting the public good. It would be ridiculous to expect such institutions to diversify the pool of speakers they sponsor, let alone act as disinterested hosts.

But to ask a naïve question: why is this so? The current public arguments around free speech suggest that we define free speech as speech that is not always already in the service of a predesignated end or programmatic agenda. We thus expect to find free speech only where the value of disinterest reigns. Hence the focus on the university.

The University as Dumping Ground

This point underscores an odd choice implicit in the free-speech position currently being advocated by centrists and liberals—for whom legal and moral rights and freedoms exist without reference to the power structures—financial, institutional, governmental—undergirding them.

What is odd about that choice is that, as a society, we maintain hundreds of public and private institutions that routinely sponsor public speech. At the same time, many accept the notion that only one of these—the university—should be charged with upholding disinterestedness.

Here, then, is the oddity: while accepting as normal that interest-driven institutions would host only speakers that further their interests, many also expect, as normal, the university to host varying, diverse, and often conflicting perspectives, no matter the cost.

Have we delegated this special task to the university because we believe it is so sacred, or because we believe it is so worthless? I admit I am tempted to jump to conclusions, given the ever-shrinking sources of financial support for higher education in this country and given the decades-long attack on the intellectual autonomy of the university by many of the other institutions listed above.

In other words, many seem to have decided that interest-driven institutions should be free to sponsor their own kinds of speech (and not required to include a diversity of viewpoints and arguments). And, in contrast, they have decided that the university should be required to serve as a free space for diverse viewpoints, regardless of the nature of their intellectual content or social value. The point is that in doing so, we are asking of the university something we would never ask of other institutions, even those that claim to serve the public good: to serve, like the internet, as a general dumping ground for public discourse.

Two Very Different Kinds of Free Speech

Historically, the notion of free speech on campus is rooted in an attachment to disinterest as a positive value. The university doesn’t just promote disinterested speech in teaching and research, it also—especially in the form of speakers invited from outside—promotes interested speech that takes place in a neutral forum. Such speech is valued, not necessarily with regard to its content, but rather as an ends in itself. Its value isn’t in the orientation or argument of a particular speech, but rather in the possibility that such talk occurs at all.

So what makes that free speech? Nothing but the fact that these constraints are self-imposed and the fact a university community would make this choice for the principle behind it, regardless of loss or gain. It is a very Kantian sense of freedom, one that is foreign to most Americans.

But isn’t the kind of speech that takes place at interest-driven venues also a kind of free speech? When thinktanks, corporations and government agencies promote speech, foster public forums and protect voices, they do so also on the grounds of exercising a right to free speech. However, in this case, it is not the principle of free speech in the abstract that motivates, but rather the preference for a particular kind of speech. A line of thinking that might augment profits. An analysis that supports or critiques an already existing or proposed policy. In such institutions, diversity is a positive value only when it helps to support stated goals.

For Americans, it is easier to see how this second kind of speech is free. It is the freedom to speak as one likes, and to encourage speech that one likes. The only constraints to this sense of free speech are those of will and resources.

So, if “campus free speech” is based in a notion of freedom constrained by obligation and responsibility to a collective good that transcends interest; this other kind of free speech—interested free speech—is based in a notion of freedom as unconstrained, as bound up with the pursuit of power or advantage.

We thus have two very different kinds of free speech existing in our world of public forums. On the one hand, 'normal' free speech, which is a kind of interested speech designed to further the goals of its sponsoring institution. And on the other, 'campus' free speech, which happens without respect, and perhaps contrary to, the interests of its host institution. On the one hand, free speech as metaphor for the libertarian individual—unfettered by obligation. On the other, free speech as metaphor for the social collective—bound by obligation, even when it runs counter to immediate interests.

The failing of liberal commentators lies not in their inability to recognize these different kinds of freedom. But in the asymmetry of their demands and expectations. They ask nothing—indeed, expect nothing—from the institutions of interested free speech. Meanwhile, they ask everything—indeed, expect it as natural—from the institutions of disinterested free speech.

Silence, Freedom and Power

Disinterested free speech is an extraordinary phenomenon in any era. It is not naturally occurring, especially when the pursuit of gain is held up as the highest virtue. In an era where unregulated competition favors the strong and powerful, disinterest is not just abnormal, it is also always fragile, always in peril. Without protection, it cannot be expected to survive the onslaught of rival interests.

Yet, what contemporary critics of campus illiberalism advocate is just the opposite. They seek to remove all walls that separate the campus from the "free market of ideas." But, what exactly is that "free market"? It is simply the world of interest-driven private and public institutions where they tend to work. Are those institutions run as free markets? Hardly. If anything, they resemble intellectual monopolies. 

The arbitrariness of the assault suggests that is not motivated by a concern about free, unfettered speech, but by an abhorrence toward the notion that an institution would pursue disinterest (no matter how imperfectly) rather than interested forms of knowledge. Indeed, contemporary liberal hot-takes on free speech display not just a misunderstanding of disinterest, but a disbelief that such a thing might be worth pursuing in the first place. So then, if you don't understand the principle of disinterest, why speak about campus free speech?

Because they are not in actuality concerned with the topic at all. If they sincerely desired free speech on campuses, they would speak up for it always, and not only when it aligned with their own positions. The would speak up on behalf of all campus speakers who have been attacked for the content of their speech, and not just those promoting eugenics and White supremacy. 

They would have denounced the vicious and false attacks of Campus Watch, Jihad Watch, and the David Project over the last 18 years. They would use their columns to condemn Canary Mission's slanderous black-lists that target hundreds of undergraduates—most of them people of color. They would stand up against current pro-Israel lobby efforts to write anti-BDS legislation into educational policy.

They would have defended Prof. Steven Salaita, a Native American Studies academic whose professional career was ended by a network of right-wing ideologues. They would have spoken out on behalf of Prof. George Ciccariello-Maher, the dynamic and well-regarded scholar of Latin American politics who was driven to resign from Drexel University by outside pressure and a lack of support from campus administration. They would stand now with the noted Stanford scholar, Prof. David Palumbo-Liu, as he is subjected to a McCarthyite campaign for speaking out about the danger of fascism on campus. They would shout foul every time Prof. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor of Princeton University receives a death threat. These are real cases of attacks on the free speech, reputation, and safety of campus communities. They have caused measurable—not merely potential or symbolic—injury to actual people. 

And in every case I've just listed, those liberal and conservative pundits who speak loudest about campus free speech have been consistently silent. The glaring exception to this rule is Bari Weiss, who far from being silent, once worked with lobby organizations to assault free speech at Columbia University. She has since falsely tried to claim otherwise. That conservative and liberal colleagues—such as Bret Stephens and Shadi Hamid—enthusiastically rallied around her only underscores the bankruptcy of their entire argument.

No, this debate is not about free speech. It never was. As Noah Berlatsky has argued, it’s about a group of pundits working together to promote themselves as a class. They may differ from one another on many points. Indeed, the issue of campus free speech is sometimes the only thing that binds them together.

For the time being, the university campus will remain a useful strawman for them. Punching hippy profs and snowflake students is a whole lot easier than taking on the actual behemoths of institutional public speech in our society—the thinktanks, funds, corporations and agencies. These are the biggest and loudest platforms of speech in our society, and they are anything but free. 

Don't expect our nation's pundits to criticize those kinds of institutions for their flagrant lack of diverse viewpoints: that would involve examination of their own workplace.