OPINION - Guest writer

ROBERT MARANTO: Protect free speech

Universities must defend rights

Having served 10 institutions of higher learning, I can say that one advantage of the University of Arkansas is that, mainly, the grownups are in charge.

My college has had at least three good deans in a row--a rare thing at any university. The honors program has long had sound leadership. Even the suits in higher administration are decent sorts. While I may disagree with their policies, the current chancellor, his predecessor, and the one before that nearly always acted reasonably.

Alas, things do not always work that way in life, or in higher education. As reported in these pages recently, a different state university has a free-speech controversy. From a distance, I cannot say whether Arkansas State University really does restrict free speech as the U.S. secretary of education charges, or whether conservative provocateurs tricked a campus administrator into looking silly, as some suggest.

I can say that in academia generally, remarkably few people explain why free speech matters. That matters since humans are instinctively tribal. If we just go with our emotions, then we will invent reasons why people like us can speak freely while others get censored. If we cannot articulate why free speech matters, then we (or others) will take that freedom away.

For that reason, Princeton University required incoming students to read Politics Professor Keith Whittington's just published Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech. As a longtime academic, I wish all colleges followed suit.

Whittington starts by recounting how Berkeley students assaulted police officers protecting a controversial speaker, at one point forcing the speaker off the stage. Indeed, "university officials had called for the lecture to be cancelled, in light of disturbances that had occurred on other campuses." The speaker was not rightist activist Milo Yiannopoulos, whose presence met violence at Berkeley in 2017, but prohibitionist activist Carrie Nation in 1903.

Generally, Whittington argues that collegiate free speech mattered little before the late 1800s. Originally, American colleges trained ministers, or operated as finishing schools for the rich--missions more suited to conveying orthodoxy than encouraging inquiry. In the 20th century, as American higher education embraced generating and disseminating knowledge, "the core value of the modern American university [became] free inquiry, not indoctrination."

Unless we already know everything worth knowing, only the reasoned, unfettered exchange of ideas can produce new knowledge: Without free speech, American universities lose their very purpose. Regarding teaching, Whittington summarizes John Stuart Mill: "the only way to be confident in our own opinions is if we have seen them weather serious challenge" from respected opponents.

Whittington acknowledges that free speech can be foolish: conservative Berkeley students should have hosted a serious intellectual like Charles Murray or Heather Mac Donald (whose campus appearances have also caused riots) rather than a clownish celebrity like Yiannopoulos. Free speech can also be false, even hurtful. Yet history shows the dangers of regulating speech. The Federalists insisted that the Sedition Act of 1798 would punish only fake news and speech causing injury (sound familiar?). In practice prosecutors targeted Jeffersonians, not Federalists. Likewise, modern controls target whomever censors oppose.

Current threats to free speech come from conservatives who want higher education to inculcate patriotism, the right role for K-12 schooling but not college. Greater dangers come from within higher education: from administrators censoring their critics; from professors in the Marcuse tradition who spread Marxist thought and censor all other; and most dishearteningly, from students seeking protection from anything they find distressing.

Speech is most controlled at elite universities, where privileged students demand protection from undesirable words, ideas, even Halloween costumes! Satirical activist Ami Horowitz easily had 50 Yale students sign a petition to abolish the First Amendment. Those are our future leaders.

Better news comes from Professor Whittington's Princeton, and from the University of Chicago, whose Statement on Principles of Free Expression has been adopted by 45 colleges including the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

In that vein, we need to teach that only by respectfully engaging with rather than censoring or denouncing others do we treat them as fully human. As civil rights activist Pauli Murray wrote, "when my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them."

Censorship and denunciation provoke hatred and polarization; respectful disagreement dials it down.


Robert Maranto (rmaranto@uark.edu) is the 21st Century Chair in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, and serves on his local school board. These views are his alone.

Editorial on 09/28/2018

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