Free Speech on College Campuses


I see that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has added his voice to those attacking universities as enemies of free speech. In today’s column, I don’t want to discuss which side of the political spectrum is most hypocritical in this regard—Washington Post’s Sarah Posner notes that the Trump administration wouldn’t fare well if Sessions’s “political correctness” were changed to “ethno-nationalistic conformity”–but rather look at what is going on with college students. Polls indicate that there is indeed less tolerance for free speech, and I believe this arises from the fact that the issues have become more personal. By this I mean that students are less likely to be tolerant when they themselves and their friends are the targets of offensive speech. I’ll elaborate in a moment.

In a recent New York Times column, conservative columnist Bret Stevens doesn’t understand this as he mourns “the dying art of disagreement.” He invokes his old teacher Allan Bloom, whose Closing of the American Mind (1987) was a key work in the culture wars of the late 1980s. Since the book went after multiculturalism’s supposed attacks on dead white male authors, Stevens’s use of Bloom is relevant to this blog. I argue here that neither Stevens nor Bloom appreciate the pressures on today’s students.

Pew reports that intolerance is on the rise, not only amongst college students but amongst millennials generally:

American Millennials are far more likely than older generations to say the government should be able to prevent people from saying offensive statements about minority groups…

Pew observes,

Four-in-ten Millennials say the government should be able to prevent people publicly making statements that are offensive to minority groups, while 58% said such speech is OK.

By contrast, only 27% of Gen Xers, 24% of Boomers, and 12% of Silents say that “the government should be able to prevent such speech.”

It is important that high school and college teachers address the issue but, to do so, we must first figure out the why. As someone who sees 18-22-year-olds up close, my own theory is two-fold. I believe that (1) during the Obama years, any number of formerly unrepresented groups felt affirmed in their identities in ways that they never had before; and (2) this meant that rightwing disrespect hurts in a new way, especially when some of that speech is directed against newly won rights (as in the case of same-sex marriage). Just as people are much more upset at having medical care taken away from them than not having it in the first place, so people react more vigorously at the withdrawal of newly acquired social acceptance.

To get specific, it now hurts more than it would have 15 years ago for LBGTQ persons to be told that they are abominations in the eyes of God and should be denied service. Now that there has been an African American president, it hurts more for African Americans to be humiliated by police. When young people encounter bigoted speech—speech, furthermore, that can lead to policy changes—then they feel far more threatened. I think this is why many want to police speech.

Just because I sympathize, however, doesn’t mean that I agree with these millennials. As unpleasant as it is, they must allow even Nazis to voice their ideas (as long as it’s not hate speech that incites people to violence, which is a crime). The First Amendment is sacrosanct and, if that’s not enough, there are practical reasons. If you try to shut other people up, they will try to shut you up—and right now those others have the president and people with guns in their corner.

When Stevens calls for college students to engage in the art of disagreement, he doesn’t look at these identity issues. For him, the prospect of black student drivers getting shot by police or LBGTQ students being fired are just abstract arguments. That’s why he can so cavalierly say that college debates should be above politics. Here’s how he describes his University of Chicago “great books” education:

What was it that one learned through a great books curriculum? Certainly not “conservatism” in any contemporary American sense of the term. We were not taught to become American patriots, or religious pietists, or to worship what Rudyard Kipling called “the Gods of the Market Place.” We were not instructed in the evils of Marxism, or the glories of capitalism, or even the superiority of Western civilization.

As I think about it, I’m not sure we were taught anything at all. What we did was read books that raised serious questions about the human condition, and which invited us to attempt to ask serious questions of our own. Education, in this sense, wasn’t a “teaching” with any fixed lesson. It was an exercise in interrogation.

To listen and understand; to question and disagree; to treat no proposition as sacred and no objection as impious; to be willing to entertain unpopular ideas and cultivate the habits of an open mind — this is what I was encouraged to do by my teachers at the University of Chicago.

As this blog makes abundantly clear, I’m all in favor of teaching the great books. I’ve just finished teaching Plato, Aristotle, and Horace in my Senior Seminar, and I have a partially sympathetic section in my upcoming book on Bloom, Stevens’s Chicago mentor. As a white student, however, Stevens could focus on pure philosophy and pure literature and didn’t have to worry about the messy business of living in a prejudiced society. Not having to worry is what entitlement looks like.

Let’s look at what this supposedly politics-free study looks like to Bloom. In Closing of the American Mind he writes,

Men may live more truly and fully in reading Plato and Shakespeare than at any other time because then they are participating in essential being and are forgetting their accidental lives. The fact that this kind of humanity exists or existed, and that we can somehow still touch it with the tips of our outstretched fingers, makes our imperfect humanity, which we can no longer bear, tolerable. The books in their objective beauty are still there, and we must help protect and cultivate the delicate tendrils reaching out toward them through the unfriendly soil of students’ souls.

Part of me is lifted up by the passage and part of me focuses on those “accidental lives.” When students come to college, they certainly want to believe that it doesn’t matter what class, gender, race, ethnicity, or sexuality they are. That’s why they are so hurt when suddenly they find themselves stereotyped and treated differently. Many would love it if everyone saw these dimensions of them as peripheral rather than defining. They just don’t have that luxury.

So they notice if Joseph Conrad characterizes Africans as a howling mob or if Richard Sheridan gives us a stereotyped Jewish moneylender in School for Scandal or if Shakespeare leaves the homosexual Antonio bereft and alone at the end of Twelfth Night. Once they’ve noticed that, my job is show them that, rather than dismissing these writers as dead white men, they can use the works to arrive at complex understandings of how people use literature to negotiate their lives—how, for instance, Shakespeare subversively gives voice to hidden and forbidden LBGTQ longings.

Actually, let me amend that. My job is to introduce the work, provide historical context, and then let them debate the issues that arise. Disagreements make for lively class discussion. In the end, like Stevens and Bloom, I want them to think for themselves.

I can understand why Stevens went to Chicago to study with Bloom. Bloom seemed to promise membership in a special meritocratic elite who use the great books as springboards. Consider the following:

The real community of man is the community of those who seek the truth, of the potential knowers, that is, in principle, of all men to the extent that they desire to know. But in fact this includes only a few, the true friends, as Plato was to Aristotle at the very moment they were disagreeing about the nature of the good. Their common concern for the good linked them; their disagreement about it proved they needed one another to understand it…This, according to Plato, is the only real friendship, the only real common good. It is here that the contact people so desperately seek is to be found.  

Bloom says that the students who take up the challenge should be our country’s leaders. Those “who are most likely to take advantage of a liberal education,” he believes, are those who will have “the greatest moral and intellectual effect on the nation.”

I wanted to be part of such a group when I went off to college, and it is my goal as a teacher to turn out leaders. I also know, however, that many of my students—I teach at a public liberal arts college where 20% of the students are first generation and 20% of them are minority—have to be shown why the authors in an early British literature survey are worth reading. Their “accidental lives” sometimes mean that they don’t initially see the relevance.

Once they understand what’s at stake, however, wonderful growth occurs. But our starting point must be respect–I must respect them and they must respect each other–and this respect can only arise if we acknowledge each others’ realities. It is lack of respect that rubs them wrong, and instinctively they want to ban it. A key job for us teachers is to help them handle disrespect in more productive ways.

Further thought: Georgetown professors and students showed one way to productively practice free speech as they protested Sessions’s speech, revealing a telling instance of hypocrisy. Huffington Post reports,

“The American university was once the center of academic freedom ― a place of robust debate, a forum for the competition of ideas,” Sessions told an invite-only audience at Georgetown University’s law school. “But it is transforming into an echo chamber of political correctness and homogenous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.”

Sessions delivered his speech as the Justice Department prepares to retry a woman who laughed at him during his Senate confirmation hearing in January. The department’s continued prosecution of Desiree Fairooz was mentioned in an open letter signed by several members of the Georgetown law school faculty that said Sessions was a poor spokesman for the values of free speech.

Meanwhile New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, a liberal whose free speech advocacy periodically gets him in trouble with the left, observed that the Trump administration wants free speech only on college campuses:

The theme of Sessions’s address is that universities have become an “echo chamber of political correctness and homogeneous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.” The charge is not altogether false, but Sessions would have at least some chance to maintain his dignity if not for his boss’s decision to publicly and repeatedly demand the firing of professional athletes who offend his own fragile ego.

Chait further points out that Trump

has devoted his life to the use of power to quash expressions of speech he disapproves of. Trump sued reporter Tim O’Brien for accurately reporting on his inflated claims of wealth. He sued architecture critic George Gapp for criticizing the aesthetic of a proposed Trump building. He and his organization have done this thousands of times


Far from discarding this practice, Trump has made it a lodestar of his political career. He has declared the mainstream news media “the enemy of the American people” and worked assiduously behind the scenes to lock down the support of the quasi-state media at Fox News. He has repeatedly threatened to revise libel laws so that the threats he used so effectively in business could become even more effective.

Our students must realize that, above all, the first amendment is a bulwark against abuse of power. Underrepresented groups stand most to gain from protecting it.

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