Freedom of Speech on Campus II

(This is part of a longer piece I’ve been writing about universities in the public sphere. I’m posting this because I think Joe is right that these issues are especially current at the moment, and the conversation is seriously compromised because people keep conflating academic freedom and freedom of speech. This is an attempt to help sort out the difference. It draws heavily on two pieces: A blog post by Alex Usher, and a transcript of a talk by Jacob Levy. Go read both first, then come back here if you care for my take on things.)


With both Ryerson and the University of Toronto this week cancelling scheduled on-campus events that were guaranteed gong shows, Marie-Danielle Smith of the National Post had the smarts to call up Conservative leader Andrew Scheer and ask him about his campaign pledge to take away federal funding from any university that failed to “foster a culture of free speech and inquiry on campus.” It wasn’t just a tossed-off proposal: in his pledge he listed specific funding mechanisms that would be at risk, and carved out a special exemption for private and especially faith-based institutions. He also made a special point of repeating the promise during his acceptance speech after he won the leadership, drawing a huge cheer from the crowd.

In his interview with Smith Scheer backed off from his promise, but only slightly. He conceded the right of universities to decide for themselves which outside groups they can give a platform to. But his retreat appears to be actually just an advance in the other direction: he still wants to use federal grant money to “incentivize” universities to encourage and foster a culture of free speech on campus, and he plans to sit down with university admins to hash out some “objective criteria.”

Setting aside the obvious complications of both authority and implementation (universities are a provincial responsibility), it was not clear  what urgent problem this policy was designed to solve. In an interview during the campaign, Scheer did mention a few incidents that had occurred on Canadian campuses, including the harassment of a pro-life student group at Wilfrid Laurier, the refusal by the McGill Daily to print “pro-Zionist” articles, and the furor surrounding UofT professor Jordan Peterson, whose bizarre refusenik campaign against students’ preferred gender pronouns has made him rich and infamous.

The stuff at Laurier and McGill is mostly just student politics as usual, and it isn’t clear that anyone’s right to freedom of expression is being violated in either case.  Regarding Peterson, Scheer said “People can disagree with him. People can refute his points, and stand up for what they believe in. But what bothers me is this sense of shutting out any kind of dissent on certain issues. I believe that Canada is a mature enough country that we can have these debates.”

But again, Peterson has not been silenced — far from it. In fact, over the past few decades, there have really only been two high profile cases of a speaker being shut down at a Canadian university: Benjamin Netanyahu at Concordia in 2002, and Ann Coulter at the University of Ottawa in 2010. Netanyahu had been invited to speak by the Concordia branch of Hillel, while Coulter had been invited by a non-student organization called the “The International Free Press Society Canada”. Neither episode reflected well on the respective schools: At Concordia, a Holocaust survivor was kicked in the groin and a rabbi and his wife were spat on, while in Ottawa the university’s provost sent Coulter a note before her speech warning her about Canada’s hate speech laws.

More plausibly, Scheer was reacting to the conveyor belt of craziness that comes our way from the United States. (As Joe Heath has pointed out, Scheer seems to have got the idea from a Donald Trump tweet).  American campuses have become battlegrounds in a renewal of the cultural wars that raged from the late eighties to the mid nineties. The battle has been joined over a number of fast-moving fronts, including classrooms and syllabi (see for example the debate over trigger warnings), peer-reviewed journals (e.g. the Rebecca Tuvel affair), and the physical campus itself, where “free speech” devotees regularly face off against “safe space” advocates, usually over the issue of invited speakers (e.g. the silencing of Charles Murray at Middlebury College).

In response to this sort of stuff, the Republican congressman Phil Roe introduced a resolution that would express the House of Representatives’ sentiments in favour of “protecting freedom of speech, thought, and expression at institutions of higher education.” Roe hinted he would consider taking further steps towards strengthening legislative protections for free speech on campus.

What these American examples highlight is the extent to which Scheer’s gambit is part of a broad and largely misguided attempt to treat university campuses as free fire zones for speech. Indeed, Scheer appeared to reinforce this interpretation during an interview with the CBC political show The House after his victory. “My social objective” he said, “is to ensure that universities are those bastions of free speech, that place where students can debate ideas, can challenge the professors, that professors can challenge their students.”

Yet Scheer clearly intends his policy to apply outside the classroom as well. In response to a question about how he would handle the controversial anti-Israel BDS movement, he said: “I find many points of view odious and obnoxious but if we start to lose that principle, that you have to have a society built on free speech and a democracy built on the ability to challenge ideas then we’re going to find ourselves going down a dangerous path.”

This is a bad idea in so many ways it is hard to keep track. To begin with, the American experience doesn’t translate well to Canada, because their approach to free speech is quite different from ours. While the first amendment protections are extremely broad and include hate speech, while Canada’s laws against hate speech have been held up as constitutional. While politically tone deaf, the University of Ottawa wasn’t completely wrong to remind Ann Coulter of this.

What exacerbates the problem, though, is that Scheer’s position is one of those Newton’s-third-law reactions to an equally problematic viewpoint. This is the idea that one of the primary functions of a university should be to redress asymmetries of power between speakers or groups of speakers, which might well involve restricting the free speech of the powerful in the name of promoting the expressive capacities of the disadvantaged.

This fundamental idea of censorship as a form of freedom is the theoretical underpinning of the much of the discourse over “safe spaces” that has sprung up in recent years. It is what motivates the pressure for “trigger warnings” over course content that some students might find offensive, and it is what drives the protests against campus speakers who are deemed to represent the privileged or the powerful. And it is all underwritten by the overwhelming dominance of identity as the pre-eminent political concern of the left.

It is rare to find an academic or administrator willing to concede that this is how they see their university’s mission, but the vice provost of NYU, Ulrich Baer, got right to the point in a piece he wrote for the New York Times in April entitled “What ‘Snowflakes’ get right about free speech”.

Baer opens with an account of how personal experience, in particular, testimony of suffering and oppression, has become privileged in American culture at the expense of more abstract argument. He favourably cites the philosopher Jean Lyotard, who argued that when experience is challenged by argument it can find itself at a disadvantage, such as when Holocaust survivors are forced to provide evidence of their suffering by skeptical cranks.  And thus according to Baer, when students protest against visits from right-wing trolls like Richard Spencer or Milo Yiannopoulos or Ann Coulter, their objective is not censorship. Instead, he says, it “should be understood as an attempt to ensure the conditions of free speech for a greater group of people.”

Baer makes sure to pay homage to the value of free speech in a university setting, but he suggests that it’s a lot less valuable in an age when anyone can just go online and get all the free speech they want in the forum of their choice. (This is, it has to be said, an absolutely insane argument for a university administrator to make. But onward). Far more important to the school’s mission now, he says, is to ensure that students learn how to “belong to various communities”, which is why we must always been open to revising our definition of free speech “to accommodate previously delegitimized experiences.”

Put in more direct and somewhat charitable terms, what Baer is saying is that if free speech is used by the powerful (typically white males)  to make historically disadvantaged groups (women, racial minorities, transgender students) feel denigrated, then it is perfectly legitimate to force the powerful to shut up.

There is a lot that is wrong with this argument, and it there’s plenty of evidence that it fails even on its own terms. More than likely, trying to protect the speech of the powerless by censoring the powerful is a losing strategy for everyone, including the powerless.

But for our purposes here, there’s a deeper problem. Both sides of this debate — the weaponized free speech demands of the alt-right on the one hand and the silencing impulses of the ctrl-left on the other — share a common misconception, which involves assimilating the value of academic freedom to the broader principle of free speech. By treating them as equivalent, both sides end up misconstruing the function of free speech in a university setting, the conditions under which it needs to be protected, and why.


In a curious way, free speech in the way it is commonly understood isn’t really a primary value of universities at all. That is, the university is not designed to be a zone for untrammeled freedom of expression, and it couldn’t possibly function properly if that’s what it were to become. This is just one part of a more general point, which is that along with freedom of speech, people have the freedom of association, and in these associations, the members have the right to limit what you can say. So you can’t walk into a classroom during a lecture about quantum mechanics and start demanding answers to your questions about Trump’s attempted repeal of Obamacare, anymore than you can stand up in the middle of a Catholic mass and try to start a rousing singalong of “Don’t Stop Believin’”.

For most people, this makes intuitive sense. But why is this the case?

In a published lecture he gave on the topic of free speech and safe spaces in a university setting, my McGill colleague Jacob Levy introduces the distinction between two types of associations, “enterprise” and “civic”. An enterprise association is one that is created for a specific purpose, like a book club, a church, a Dungeons and Dragons guild, and so on. These groups are all oriented are a particular “vision of the good”, narrowly understood. People join a chess club to learn about and play chess, and people form a stargazing society to gaze at stars. Anyone who isn’t interested in these pursuits needs to find some place else to go hang out, lest they spoil it for everyone else.

In contrast, a civic association is one that has no intrinsic purposes; it merely sets the rules and parameters that enable people to pursue their various private or collective goals. A liberal society is of course the classic example of a civic association — it is neutral with respect to conceptions of the good life. It just says to citizens, look, here are the rules of the game that govern how you interact with one another, and if you want to set up your own enterprise associations, here is how you go about doing that as well.

So the question is, what sort of association is a university? The answer of course is, “it’s complicated.”

In one sense, a university looks a lot like a big civic association, one that has no substantial purposes of its own. A university is neutral with respect to the ideas or data or results that come out of research activities, nor does it prescribe what the content of its courses should be —  on matters of substance, it holds no views of its own. What the university does is set the terms for the research and teaching activities of its faculty, and tells them how they can create a new class, or programme, or even a new institute if they would like to do so.

But a university does this because it is, at the same time, a sort of meta-enterprise association: it allows all of this activity because it is committed to an overall purpose, which is the organized, structured, teaching and accumulation of knowledge. As Levy puts it, the term we use for the norms that govern how all of this proceeds is “academic freedom.”

And what this academic freedom is most assuredly not equivalent to is what is commonly understood as “free speech.” In fact, academic freedom is in many ways about the freedom to restrict speech; to limit what is said and done in the classroom or in the research lab. It is the freedom to debate, but also to constrain it, in the name of the freedom of directed and focused inquiry. And the places where this happens — the classrooms, the departments, the faculties — Levy says we might as well call these “safe spaces.” (When I first read that in Levy’s piece, I marvelled at the absolute chutzpah of that way of phrasing it.)

Anyway, as Levy goes on to argue, these safe spaces are necessary for two reasons. First, because academic inquiry is hard, and it needs places where it can be pursued relatively free of distractions. Second, constantly being challenged or criticized or provoked can be exhausting,, and scholars (especially nascent scholars, students just setting out on an intellectual adventure) need places where they can recharge or just be alone with their thoughts.

This is what Carleton prof Stephanie Carvin was getting at with some remarks she made about the problem with people trying to turn universities into Twitter. Schools would become places where there is no rest, no peace, no room for careful, structured thought or peaceful recharging. A university would be a place where you would be constantly challenged and interrupted and forced to defend principles or beliefs or assumptions that are the foundations of effective academic work, but aren’t themselves the academic work. On this view, bringing the values of free speech into the academic setting would be tiring and unproductive, and somewhat at odds with the actual mission of the university.

But there are two ways in which this tidy little conception of the university as a sanctuary of cademic safe spaces gets a little messy: Student groups, and invited speakers.

One of the things we tell our new students is that it isn’t enough to just come to university to study and go to class. “Get involved”, we tell them. Run for student government or join a theatre club or write for the student newspaper or join the campus Conservatives or campus Communists or whatever other enterprise association strikes your fancy.

These associations are all great fun, and for many students it is what they remember most of their time at school. But they are also the Trojan horses that sneak the free speech debate into the university safe space zones. Student theatre groups can stage plays that dramatize the assassination of the president. The student newspaper can assert a blanket privilege to publish what it likes, or to refuse to publish whatever it doesn’t. The campus political parties can claim a right to hold meetings, invite speakers, and openly recruit on campus. Any and all of these activities can disrupt the safe space bubble in which academic learning happens, not as deformations of the university experience, but as fulfillments of it.

And so universities can easily find themselves caught between two competing conceptions: a) the university as an enterprise association of intellectual safe spaces where students and professors can work, learn, and recharge, and b) a place where the university’s character as a civic association permits activities and associations that invite free speech claims inside the walls of the citadel.

There is nothing necessarily incompatible in these two competing conceptions of university life. After all, one of the great things about a decent sized university is that the intellectual separations are mirrored by its architecture: the dorms are away from the classrooms and the lecture halls, and the student clubs have offices that are in a separate building altogether. Peaceful co-existence through architecture has served many universities very well for decades.

And that’s why it doesn’t have to be a problem if the campus Conservatives invite, say, Ann Coulter to give a talk: no one makes you go. Similarly, no one makes you read the campus newspaper, and if one campus group really gets you riled up, well you can always try to start your own.

The real fights tend to happen, frankly, because of bad faith, where one side or the other is not content to allow certain enterprises to exercise their associative rights. They object in principle to a certain viewpoint being expressed on “their” campus, and try to prevent it from occurring. And sometimes campuses are exploited by outside groups hoping to stir up trouble, such as Ann Coulter’s visit to the University of Ottawa in 2010.

But ultimately, this has to be an issue for universities to resolve internally. As Joe rightly points out, it is pretty clear that when it comes to ranking the threats to free speech on Canadian university campuses, academic administrators are clearly a much bigger problem than snowflake students. But the very idea that politicians are better placed to resolve these conundrums, or that they have a right to try to do so because of their control over the school’s purse strings, would simply recapitulate the problem at a higher level.


Freedom of Speech on Campus II — 1 Comment

  1. I wonder if there are fundamental differences in perspective that might influence acceptance of the paradigm you suggest. On the one hand, there are those for whom a university is a place for learning. On the other, a university is a place in which a credential is purchased which then enables a place on one rung or another of a particular socioeconomic ladder. I am under the impression that the latter is increasingly embraced in fact, though many might not admit it even to themselves, and academics might not admit it at all.

    The difference influences the role that participants assign to speech. I am eager to have a wide variety of programs available on television from which I can learn but which I can ultimately choose to turn off. I am much less interested in listening to speech I find threatening if it is required in the process of purchasing a NYC taxi medallion, which enables me to conduct passengers, charge them a fare, and provide for my family.

    We can debate the purpose of speech on campus, and the role of legislators who support those facilities. But we need to have that discussion in the context of an explicit understanding about the varied purposes those institutions are intended to support.