More on Campus Free Speech

After the exchange about free speech on campuses that I put into this earlier post, Cliff wrote back at length. With his permission I respond here so that others can look in on the conversation. Here are the substantive portions of Cliff’s message, indented, with my reactions not indented:

(1) There are a lot of “should”s that would be obtainable in a perfect society that are not practically attainable in the imperfect society and world in which we live.

Agreed. So for me the key question is what underlying rules we need to make it as good as possible, given people’s imperfections.

For example: No one who works full time “should” have to live in poverty or be reliant on “food stamps” or other government “handouts” to get by — but the fact of the matter is that many places in this country are still struggling to put in place a minimum wage of $15 per hour, which is still not equivalent (in 2016 dollars) to the $2 per hour that was the minimum wage when I graduated from [high school] in 1976. Despite that fact, many think-tank types are still arguing against a minimum wage of ANY kind — and if you ask me that “shouldn’t” be the case;

I am one of those “think-tank types.” Minimum wage laws cause unemployment for many of the very people they are supposed to help. This happens whenever the minimum wage (plus payroll taxes and mandatory unemployment compensation) exceeds the value the workers can create for those who would like to employ them. Here is a good explanation; I recently debated this with a friend here and here. Now back to the free speech issue.

(2) After all of the sacrifices of so many lives in the US Civil Rights movement to create a level playing field, we “should” be living in a “color-blind” or “post-racial” society by now — but that is not the case now, nor is it likely to be the case within your lifetime or mine. “[E]veryone “should” be treated alike, regardless of skin color” — you will get no argument from me against that proposition — but from the prisons to the police forces to job interviews to college admissions, that is again simply not the case, nor is it likely to be the case for the foreseeable future. Sure, this is the world that we “should” be working to bring into being — but none of us alive today is ever likely to see it;

Agreed. And with respect to “prisons and police forces,” the War on Drugs is a terrible problem for black people and for race relations in America; it should be ended now. Yet though we’ll never get to a completely “post-racial” society, in my lifetime I have seen and rejoiced at the steady progress toward it.

(3) The world we live in is one in which black people can call each other the N-word all day long, with minimal societal consequences, but a white person who uses the N-word to label a black person will be a social pariah outside of his or her own small in-group of like-minded racists. That “shouldn’t” be the case — but it is.

I disagree. Different standards of behavior in different groups and settings are inevitable. We should accept and respect them. What I have italicized in your sentence above seems to me exactly the right punishment for someone who willfully offends others: social sanction, not censorship. Let him speak; then criticize and condemn his offensive speech, and shun him for it if it’s bad enough.

 (4) The administrative personnel of colleges and universities have a practical obligation to avoid situations in which dangerous speech might cause student riots and potential harm to students and citizens who might avail themselves of the public spaces that colleges and universities are usually treated as. Yes, in reality, they are often “really” privately owned spaces that do not have to respond to public ordinances as to who is or is not allowed to use potentially inflammatory speech within their premises — but practical considerations cause them to reject allowing David Duke to speak on the campus of Howard or Morehouse, for instance. People could get hurt or killed — whether that “should” or “should not” be the case.

I can’t fully agree with this. Of course a college must protect the physical safety of people there. But how should it do so? At one logical extreme, where your reasoning here seems headed, it could do so by embracing “the heckler’s veto.” That is, it could deny the opportunity to speak to anyone against whose speech or presence some students might react with violence. That would be destructive of liberal education in at least two ways: it would teach the students that the way to assert their ideas is to shut down opposing ideas, and it would deny the students the opportunity to hear and better understand some of the bad ideas society needs to understand and refute.

At the other extreme, the college could protect the physical safety of the people there by insisting on peaceful dialogue as a non-negotiable principle of behavior on the campus. The proper response to bad speech is better speech. If some student group wants to invite, say, David Duke to speak, perhaps to make his best case for white supremacy so they can understand and refute his twisted thinking, the administration should back them up and insist that he be given a—I was going to say “respectful” hearing but of course I don’t mean that—a quiet hearing, respecting his right to speak while disrespecting his ideas. Once he finishes let the students rip his reasoning to shreds in their turn.

It’s fine to sit in an ivory tower and say that free speech should be completely free under all circumstances — but the realities of present-day society (and all past societies that I know of) simply don’t allow that ideal to put into practice, no matter how “desirable” it might be.

I think you are correct here, but these realities are regrettable, and we should work towards the ideal. Maybe nothing is more important than free speech to a free society. College students should be taught that, firmly.

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