Home » Our Stories » The Value and Limits of Academic Speech » Introductory Essay by Professor Chris W. Surprenant
Chris W Surprenant speaking in a classroom (Free speech essay)
Chris W Surprenant

A few weeks ago, as I sat down to write this piece, I made the mistake of opening up Facebook and having the misfortune of seeing that a friend had posted an article containing an interview with a woman who went on a date with comedian Aziz Ansari and had “the worst night of [her] life.” At this point, you’re likely familiar with this article, and the subsequent discussion regarding whether or not the woman was sexually assaulted, what obligations people have generally to leave situations in which they are uncomfortable, and the general difficulty and awkwardness that comes with navigating the world of sexual relationships. I do not wish to comment on any of that here.

But I did want to comment on it that night. And comment I did. After a handful of my friend’s friends responded to the initial post saying that it was obvious that Mr. Ansari was guilty of sexual assault, I posted what I thought to be a somewhat innocuous comment that advanced a position similar to the one taken by Andrew Sullivan the week before [http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2018/01/andrew-sullivan-time-to-resist-excesses-of-metoo.html]. Within minutes, I was under attack from a handful of my friend’s friends—nearly all graduate students in the humanities or social sciences—calling me, among other things, “a piece of human garbage” for thinking that we may want to exercise restraint on publicly accusing people of sexual assault, and that the entire discussion surrounding the topic of sexual assault and the type of behavior that we should expect from others requires a more nuanced treatment than what we’re giving it here.

While we should probably expect better behavior from graduate students in the humanities and social sciences, I thought little of the exchange until I went into my office the next week. I popped into my chair’s office to say hello, and after a brief exchange about other things, he said (with a smirk), “I saw you had an interesting discussion online the other night.” Apparently, one of the people I was engaging with was so offended by what I had said, she copied the conversation and sent it to my department chair and dean, believing that my position was so offensive that I would be reprimanded or even terminated from my position at the university. My chair and dean were quick to respond—or not respond as the case would be—communicating to me that this was clearly a free speech issue and I shouldn’t be concerned.

This non-incident incident ended well because I have a chair and dean who recognize that free speech and open inquiry are central to the mission of any university. But it could have gone the other way, and it often does at colleges and universities throughout the US.

Today’s conflict regarding free speech in higher education comes to us largely on the tail of numerous policies and programs that can inhibit or even censor speech in the name of promoting a diverse, respectful, and inclusive campus. The goals of promoting inclusion and due respect are not only consistent with the missions of liberal education and liberal democracy, but also obligatory to it. Problems arise, however, when such policies chill or proscribe speech that is properly part of the discourse that a challenging college education should encourage. Are such programs and policies valid partners of liberal freedom? Or are they weapons in the hands of ideologically driven pedagogues? The fate of liberal education hangs in the balance.

The list of policies at stake are now well known to those who follow the folkways of higher education, including such things as speech codes; often overly expansive anti-harassment codes pushed by internal campus constituencies and the federal government; sensitivity and diversity training that can either enlighten or open the door to ideological bullying and intolerance of intellectual diversity; trigger warnings that can signal trauma and emotional danger in great literature; anti-micro-aggression policies that can inhibit intellectual honesty and the interpersonal exchanges that are essential parts of college education; safe-space policies that can either protect the sanctity of unpopular campus groups or be applied to prevent legitimate speakers from coming to campus; and often extensive bias-reporting systems that can have Orwellian implications. Meanwhile, a growing list of speakers who would be welcome in the polity at large have been shouted down (some even physically threatened) at several prominent schools, while even more have continued to be “dis-invited”—or not invited in the first place—because their views are deemed contrary to regnant campus orthodoxies.

One reason for this symposium, and the edited volume connected to it, is to examine how these issues are affecting and infiltrating higher education. As some of our contributors point out, surveys of student attitudes and feelings toward speech indicate a growing willingness to deem disrespectful and unwanted speech as “harmful” or even “dangerous,” thereby creating fertile ground for the restriction of discourse. Others maintain that such speech is inconsistent with the normative obligations of higher education.

A major issue lying in the background of the debates in this volume is over the meaning of “harm” itself. Free speech may be restricted if it causes a significant harm. Several of our writers refer to the “harm principle” in John Stuart Mill’s classic work, On Liberty, which requires a direct harm to the significant interests of another person before liberty—especially liberty of speech—may be limited. But like so much else in our modern or post-modern age, the concept of harm has been expanded and “problematized.” Before recent decades, for example, society did not countenance such things as widespread environmental harm, discriminatory—as opposed to traditional moral—harms associated with pornography, harm due to “micro-aggressions,” and the like. Four major speech-related questions loom regarding claims of harm: Are they reasonable? Are they genuine? Are they political weapons in disguise? What impact does their recognition have on the higher education mission?

Returning to my initial story, while it is clear that the graduate student hoped that I would be reprimanded, what does it say about our academic climate that potential future faculty members believe it is appropriate to try to punish scholars for their speech? Similarly, why do students believe it is appropriate to shout down visiting scholars whose views they disagree with? They’re getting this idea from somewhere, and I worry that it is other faculty members on campus. While many people concerned about academic free speech are worried that the barbarians are at the gate, it seems to me that they’re already inside. If so, what then?

The only solution I see is for more students, faculty, and administrators to speak loudly and often when the principles of academic discourse are being undermined. While it is easier to speak up and defend these principles when we agree with the views attempting to be silenced, it’s just as important (if not more important) to speak up and defend those expressing views with which we disagree, assuming that they are presenting those views in a scholarly way.