Understanding the Free Speech Issues at Missouri and Yale

How should we think about the free speech issues in the recent controversies at the University of Missouri and Yale? In my view, universities have a deep obligation to protect and preserve the freedom of expression. That is, most fundamentally, at the very core of what makes a university a university.

This has not always been true. Throughout history, colleges and universities have limited freedom of expression in all sorts of ways. In the nineteenth century, they often forbade the expression of any views that were inconsistent with Christian religious doctrine, including of course the doctrine of evolution. In the twentieth century, they often forbade the expression of any views that were seen as unpatriotic during World War I or as communistic during the McCarthy era. Today, the battle is primarily over expression that makes students feel uncomfortable or unsafe. The principles, though, are the same.

Last year, I chaired a faculty committee at the University of Chicago that was charged with the task of drafting a formal Statement of Principles for the University on freedom of expression. That statement, which can be found here, has since been adopted by a number of other institutions, including Princeton, Purdue, and American University.

Drawing on the principles articulated in that Statement, but speaking only for myself, I would offer the following thoughts about the events at Missouri and Yale:

First, should students be permitted to wear Halloween costumes that might offend or upset other students (for example, wearing sombreros or blackface or dressing as aborted fetuses) or to use language that might offend or upset other students (for example, kike, fag, spic, dyke, nigger, slut, etc.)?

The answer clearly is "yes." The robust freedom of speech that must be guaranteed by a university must include the freedom to express thoughts, opinions, and views that others find odious, hateful, distasteful, and offensive. The use of such costumes and words, however uncivil and provocative, enables the expression of particular views in an especially powerful and emotional manner. However offensive such speech might be to others, it is clearly part of the freedom of expression we all must tolerate.

Second, should students who are offended by such expression be permitted to condemn those who engage in such behavior as ignorant, racist, hateful, and despicable? Of course. Toleration does not imply acceptance or agreement. The freedom to speak does not give one the right not to be condemned and despised for one's speech. That is the whole point of the "marketplace of ideas."

Third, should students who are offended by such expression be permitted to demand that the university discipline students who engage in such behavior? Of course. Although the university should resist such demands, students are perfectly within their rights to try to persuade the institution to change its policies to address such behavior. As should be evident, in my view the institution should not change its policies in this regard, but such issues are always open to debate and deliberation.

Fourth, should the university discourage students from expressing themselves in ways that might offend, upset, annoy, or demean other students or make them feel disrespected, insulted, or unsafe? This depends on the context.

In my view, a university should not itself take positions on substantive issues. A university should not declare, for example, that abortion is moral, that undocumented immigrants have a right to remain in the United States, that the United States should abandon Israel, or that a flat tax is the best policy. It is for the faculty and students of the institution to debate those issues for themselves, and the university as an institution should not intrude in those debates by purporting to decide on the "correct" point of view.

On the other hand, a university can promote certain values both to educate its students and to foster an intellectual environment that is most conducive to the achievement of the institution's larger educational goals. To that end, a university can appropriately encourage a climate of civility and mutual respect. It can do this in a variety of ways, as long as it stops short of censorship. More specifically, a university can legitimately educate students about the harms caused by the use of offensive, insulting, degrading, and hurtful language and behavior and encourage them to express their views, however offensive or hurtful they might be, in ways that are not unnecessarily disrespectful or uncivil.

This, of course, leaves many questions unanswered. But it is a start.