There is a conflict between the desire for respectful speech and free speech, and nowhere is it more clearly manifested than on college campuses. At the University of Missouri last November, student protesters physically tried to eject a student journalist from a protest area. Following the incident, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times wrote, “Moral voices can also become sanctimonious bullies.” One month earlier, the Wesleyan student government voted to cut funding for the school newspaper after it ran an op-ed criticizing Black Lives Matter. There are countless incidents in which speakers have been protested and cancelled on the basis of their ideas.
The New Culture of Self-Censorship
But do these incidents accurately reflect the views of a majority of college students? Is it fair to describe student activism as wholly intolerant? I remain unconvinced. It seems more likely that the anti-speech actions of an extremely small minority are magnified by the media frenzy surrounding each incident, creating the misconception that these views are more common than they actually are.
When a speaker gets cancelled or a newspaper loses funding, the short-term impact is the censoring of that particular viewpoint. But the long-term (and more significant) impact is the signal sent about what type of speech is acceptable. Free speech—in its most crucial and effective form—is not simply a constitutional right under the First Amendment, but a fragile culture. It means that people should feel that they can go out and argue whatever they want. Without it, even the strongest legal and institutional protections are meaningless. Culture is invaluable in determining what people feel they can and can’t do; seeing other people openly discussing controversial ideas makes people much more likely to do so themselves. Conversely, seeing others punished for airing their opinions makes people scared and reluctant to speak out.
The result is self-censorship. There is the fear that one small misstep will result in being on the receiving end of the “safe space” shaming bludgeon that is so prominently broadcasted nationwide. People struggle to abide by the new norm of emotional respect in an intellectual space, shying away from potentially controversial speech that might challenge cultural orthodoxies. In certain corners of thought, ideological vibrancy is eroded and replaced by a respectful staleness. Richard Wang ’20 commented, “You always run the risk. You don’t want to offend anyone, so you self-censor yourself… There’s a small group of people that is loud about being anti-free speech, which has a big role in determining the on-campus culture but isn’t representative of the opinions of the student body.”
The Administrative Role
Surely, the Harvard administration can play an active role in fostering this delicate and essential culture of free speech. While official institutional policies can occasionally be used directly to protect speech, their real effect is as an indirect indicator to students of what the on-campus culture should be like.
A bottom-up effort by students to avoid self-censorship should be attempted, but it is erroneous to put the onus on individuals to take the stance against anti-speech backlash. The words and actions of the administration are crucial in determining what type of culture develops on campus. We need a “top-down” approach by the administration to correct the root of the issue, which is the idea that we should strive to attain emotional comfort in an intellectual setting.
This was the purpose of the recent University of Chicago letter on safe spaces and free speech—a clear reaffirmation of the value of free speech over emotional respect. The anti-speech actions of a small but vocal minority have been broadcasted so loudly that—if free speech is a culture we want to encourage—it is often a necessary evil at this point in the national conversation to state pro-speech stances in a loud, direct, and unequivocal way. Statements couched in qualifiers and diplomatic phrasing just blend into the drab background noise of agreeable administrative policies. The letter was criticized for being attention-seeking, but that was its exact intent: to proudly draw attention to the idea of free inquiry as a crucial pillar of academic life. The fact that we have essentially devolved into a national shouting match over free speech may not make anyone particularly pleased, but it is necessary to acknowledge that the blunt and overly simplistic characteristics of the letter were a reflection of how our dialogue on the issue looks right now.
“Kids These Days”
But we must avoid devolving into a situation where administrators are just dictating pro-speech policy down to students. It is not constructive to impose normative statements as incontrovertible truths that must be accepted by students without debate. Unfortunately, a fair amount of free speech defense today takes the form of aggrieved op-eds penned by writers who are quite fond of lamenting the current state of young people or complaining loudly about “coddled millennials.” Unfortunately, these statements are often counterproductive. Will Creeley, vice president of legal and public advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, elaborated in an interview with the HPR, “I get nervous about the steady drumbeat of ‘kids these days’ articles where there’s some kind of imagined tension between ‘millennials’ and freedom of expression. I mean, I’m not that old. I remember that it’s not pleasant or interesting to be lectured by one’s elders. And I think that if we get to a position where free speech is older telling younger people to eat your vegetables, it becomes less useful.”
There is an inherent hypocrisy in some parts of the free speech movement. The same individuals who believe that it is not constructive to dismiss people as racists readily dismiss young people as infantilized crybabies who cannot possibly comprehend why free speech is important. But to do so reveals an underlying intellectual smugness, insularity, and close-mindedness, a belief that vast swaths of people who have different opinions than you are simply not worth your time. It is a refusal to consider why people believe certain things or feel the way they do. This approach is unlikely to lead to the productive dialogue and engagement that advocates of free speech claim to value.
Instead, it is crucial to characterize student activists fairly and attempt to understand their motivations. Conor Healy ’19 reflects, “I just think I’ve had more time to grow and understand exactly why people want to limit speech. I don’t think that these are necessarily bad people. I think they have noble intentions, and I have made a conscious effort to understand why there is so much emotion in this sphere and why people are so fervent about their beliefs on this issue.”
The focus must be on engaging with, and not berating students—the next generation—and striving to convince them why allowing for all types of speech is tremendously crucial. Because despite the occasional shocking examples of censorship that are feverishly offered up in sensational Atlantic articles, most students do agree that free speech is important and should be protected. “I have read survey results showing that today’s students don’t appreciate the principles of free speech,” said Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker in an email interview with the HPR. “But I have never witnessed it at Harvard. I’ve found that the students in my classes, my lab, and my office visits are completely reasonable and clear-thinking.”
It is true that free speech is threatened on college campuses. Too often, free inquiry is sacrificed as we grow increasingly more reluctant to poke the bear of cultural orthodoxy. But to properly defend free speech, we must return to its fundamental principles. We must engage with those we vehemently disagree with instead of continuing to shout past each other. Ultimately, free speech is an enormously important but fragile social practice, and everyone—students and administrators, liberals and conservatives, young and old—should strive to protect and cherish it.
Image Credit: Flickr/JAM Project