In Praise of Free Speech and the University

IHS has launched a new website for its Free Speech and Open Inquiry Project, and has asked me to contribute my thoughts as part of this new enterprise. I am pleased and honored to do so. Robust free speech and exposure to a wide range of ideas is indispensable to the missions of higher education and the constitutional polity.

It’s good to start by reminding ourselves of why free speech and open inquiry are so important in general, and commentators have espoused many positive, interrelated justifications. These include the inherent right of each individual to think freely for himself or herself; free speech’s contribution to the pursuit of truth, self-exploration and intellectual adventure; the development of such virtues as tolerance and moral courage; the flourishing of democratic self-government and democratic consent; and the protection of dissent that can lead to constructive social change.

A key negative justification pertains to what John Stuart Mill and others have envisioned as the “fallibility principle”: no one possesses the capacity to be all knowing or wise. Given human fallibility, no entity—especially the government that has so much power over all its citizens—should rightfully enjoy the authority to silence the voices of those who disagree with reigning consensus or orthodoxy.

“Who Decides?” what we should read or hear is a simple yet powerful question in a constitutional polity. Should it be the government and its retinues of politicians and bureaucrats? University leaders and the growing legions of bureaucrats they employ? Or should public truth be determined by the judgments “We the People” make in the free marketplace of ideas? Free people know the answer in their hearts and minds.

Each of these justifications is directly relevant to higher education, the mission of which is to foster intellectual enlightenment and the ability and capacity to think for oneself. A viable system of free speech—which it is the duty of the government and each citizen to honor and protect—is indispensable to both personal freedom and political self-government. It is also an inalienable part of the diversity to which higher education is so committed. Differences regarding opinions and beliefs are an intrinsic part of human nature, so restricting the range of opinions and beliefs amounts to a profound disrespect of our fellow citizens and of diversity itself.

In What Is Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant, a leading philosopher of knowledge and liberal democracy, captured how enlightenment through liberal education serves personal and political freedom while nourishing the virtues of courage and conviction. “Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! ‘Have the courage to use your own reason!’ That is the motto of enlightenment.”

In order for higher education’s enlightenment project to serve citizens in their individual and civic capacities, it must respect and promote a vibrant marketplace of ideas. Our enlightenment as a people demands nothing less. We can attain enlightenment only by fearlessly and critically engaging all sides of an idea or issue. As the philosopher Alexander Meiklejohn wrote in his classic work, Free Speech and Its Relation to Self-Government, “To be afraid of an idea, any idea, is to be unfit for self-government.”

Recent research in social psychology has shown that learning how to think critically and to deal constructively with challenging ideas are vital to emotional and intellectual growth, and how shielding young people from such engagement undermines necessary maturation. This research provides empirical support to Meiklejohn’s intellectual and moral intuition regarding the centrality of free speech to individual and democratic development.

Let me offer a final justification for free speech on campus that is not mentioned enough: its lack is simply boring. Imagine a university in which only ideas consistent with regnant orthodoxies and beliefs are tolerated or allowed—a condition that is sadly too prevalent in higher education today. Is this is not like listening to only the same music or song, over and over, or reading only the same book. Where is the growth? Where is the sense of intellectual adventure? Is such an education really worth the unprecedented cost of college today? Families are going into hock for this?

I think of philosopher Jose Ortega Gassett’s depiction of a university alive with ideas and intellectual challenge in his book, Mission of the University. “On pain of atrophy, [the University] needs contact…with public life, with historical reality, with the present…It must be in the midst of life, and saturated with it.” A university must expose its students to the full dimensions of life, not shelter them from uncomfortable or challenging thought.

Of course, all rights have limits, and free speech is no exception. So long as it is careful to narrowly define the appropriate circumstances, a university or college may appropriately limit speech in order to enforce reasonable time, place, and manner regulations, or to protect against genuine threats, harassments, defamations or libels, or violations of substantial of privacy or confidentiality interests. More generally, they may also punish speech that is closely connected to the violation of the law.

But these limits, which apply to freedom of speech generally, are narrow exceptions based on compelling competing rights or interests. As a general and profound rule, freedom of speech and intellectual diversity must enjoy the highest status in institutions of higher learning in order for those institutions to meet their fiduciary obligation to each citizen and the constitutional order. As Meiklejohn might improvise, to be afraid of an idea, any idea, is to be unfit for liberal education.