In Defense of Free Speech and the Mission of the University 

Published Date: February 28, 2024 | Topics: Civil Rights and Liberties, Natural Law, Philosophy, Politics and Current Affairs

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This article originally appeared in Public Discourse.

If we were to adopt Yoram’s call for censorship in areas where I am calling for freedom of speech, I invite him—and you, gentle reader—to consider the following question: Would the result be anything other than the further entrenchment of current campus orthodoxies, and the further weakening of protection for dissent and dissenters?

My friend and former student Yoram Hazony has argued in Public Discourse that it’s time for universities to abandon any commitment to “absolute free speech.” In light of rampant expressions of anti-Semitism on university campuses since the horrific Hamas terrorist attacks of October 7, 2023, Yoram thinks universities should forbid and punish the expression or advocacy of certain ideas or positions by students and faculty, and “suspend” or “terminate” those who, for example, advocate genocide.

Yoram suggests that I and others—especially my friend Jonathan Haidt—have been “reduced” to defending a “fundamentally wrongheaded” pro–free speech view. Here I will explain why I persist in believing that the research and teaching missions of nonsectarian colleges and universities, such as the one at which Yoram was a student and at which I teach, are best served by the most robust commitment to freedom of thought, inquiry, and expression—that is, the right to examine and defend or criticize any idea, including ideas we judge to be extreme and even evil.

Hazony’s Historical Approach

Yoram’s essay is dedicated almost entirely to offering a historical account of campus free speech culture in the 1980s. In Yoram’s telling, while universities did not engage in censorship back then, they didn’t need to, because no one at the time was advocating the most extreme views. “No one,” for example, would have defended the “ideologically induced murder of millions, just as no one tried to justify raping women, or engaging in torture for pleasure, or purposely killing children.”

But accurate or not, no purely historical account can establish the normative conclusion Yoram wants to reach, namely, that we should forbid and punish the expression of certain viewpoints now. Of course, studying the past is valuable; it can give clues as to the potential outcomes of adopting particular policies. But to show that university administrators should punish people for expressing certain views, we require a stand-alone argument that justifies such a policy as a matter of principle and prudence. As far as I can tell, Yoram offers no such argument. He only provides an interesting, albeit in the end, I believe, inadequate, historical narrative. The best I can do in responding to him is to articulate my own defense of a robust conception of campus free speech, which I will do in the following two sections. I will then explain how the four separate principles that Yoram claims should be emphasized over and above “absolute free speech” generally fit within my framework.

Truth-Seeking, Open Inquiry, and Free Speech

Rights—whether civil, political, natural, or human rights—are grounded and shaped by the goods they protect. In the university, the good that takes priority is knowledge—the end (telos) that renders intelligible our labors as teachers, scholars, and students. The central mission of the university is truth-seeking.

But to fulfill that mission, universities must establish and maintain certain conditions. For example, truth must be pursued with integrity. So students and faculty alike are bound by norms of honesty, and plagiarism, for example, is forbidden. Another example: speech in university courses must be topical. A professor can rightly assign a failing grade to a student who submits a fine essay about the latest trends in pop music when he or she was charged to write on the causes of the First World War in a History class, or ionic and covalent bonding in a chemistry course.

The point is that the right to free speech on college campuses is shaped by the requirements of pursuing truth. So, the “absolutism” I have defended, and of which Yoram is critical, would not permit just  any speech at any time in any place on campus. As I already noted, the academic project entails norms that restrict some instances of speech, and more general norms of social order apply, too: threats and harassment are prohibited, as are slander and libel; incitement to imminent lawlessness is subject to sanction; and so on.

I do defend a narrower “absolutism,” however. I believe that, for reasons both principled and pragmatic, university administrations should not prohibit and punish speech on account of the moral, political, or religious views expressed—no matter how fiercely I or anyone else judges those views to be wrong, evil, or even dangerous.

One way university administrators, professors, and students can fail in their duties and even undermine the university’s mission is by thwarting the very process of truth-seeking by forbidding the expression of certain ideas and lines of inquiry.

Against Viewpoint-Based Restrictions: Principled and Pragmatic Reasons

The truth-seeking enterprise precludes the university from punishing the expression of a view on the ground that the ideas expressed are false or harmful. That is because such viewpoint restrictions, as I will call them, tend to hamper both the discovery and the appropriation of the truth.

We human beings are fallible: we all believe some things that are false, though we believe them precisely because we (mistakenly) hold them to be true. We have no guarantee that our erroneous beliefs are restricted to minor issues. They may touch on matters of profound importance. Indeed, we have no guarantee that even our deepest, most cherished, identity-forming beliefs are true. Fidelity to the ideal of truth requires acknowledgment of our own fallibility. If we are to pursue the truth honestly, we should never ignore questions or arguments because they make us uncomfortable or threaten to cause us to abandon beliefs that we cherish and even regard as central to our identity. To ignore them on that basis is to be a dogmatist. Nor can we simply take arguments or viewpoints for granted. Fidelity to the ideal of truth requires nothing less than a willingness to have even our deepest convictions and those of which we are most certain questioned, criticized, challenged, denied.                                                                                                                 

When university administrators, professors, or students forbid the expression of certain points of view precisely because they consider them false, wrongheaded, or even spectacularly offensive, they are undermining the epistemological norms that must be heeded in order for the truth to be pursued authentically and well. Pursuing truth is often a difficult and uncomfortable process. It can even be terrifying—since it could be the case that certain things we desperately want to be true are in fact false, and things that we desperately want to be false are in fact true. And, of course, our wanting things to be true (or false) doesn’t make them so. The temptation is to abandon truth; to favor comfort over it; to allow our emotional investment in our beliefs to cause us to prefer persisting in them to discovering that they are in fact not true (or in some way deficient or defective).

So, one way university administrators, professors, and students can fail in their duties and even undermine the university’s mission is by thwarting the very process of truth-seeking by forbidding the expression of certain ideas and lines of inquiry and argument. I accept my esteemed former student’s accusation that I must therefore support the right of my colleagues and students to ponder, express, and defend deplorable ideas. Indeed, I have spent decades doing just that—consider, for example, my steadfast defense of the free speech rights of my colleague Peter Singer, who defends the moral permissibility not only of elective abortion (which I judge to be deeply unjust) but even the intentional killing of infants for some period of time after they are born. I believe—and am indeed quite confident—that Professor Singer is profoundly wrong on these points and have often stated my reasons for rejecting his beliefs. If, however, I am to be serious about the truth, I must entertain the possibility that I am wrong and Peter Singer is right about abortion and infanticide. I must think through and engage his arguments and present my own. I may not shut down his speech because I passionately disagree with it and am very, very confident that he is very, very wrong—and wrong about a matter of the deepest moral significance, a matter of basic justice and fundamental human rights, literally a matter of life and death.

I said earlier that viewpoint restrictions hamper not only the discovery but also the deeper appropriation of truth. For example, while I am confident that Professor Singer is wrong about infanticide (and abortion), I and other philosophers and students of philosophy who disagree with him have learned from engaging his arguments. In fact, I have learned a great deal from doing so—from being forced to consider precisely why he is wrong. And my doing so has not only deepened my understanding of the ethics of pre- and post-natal homicide, it has also deepened my appreciation of the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of human beings in all stages and conditions of life. Some academic colleagues and a great many of my students say the same of their engagement with Singer’s work.

But even beyond these reasons for honoring the most robust understanding of freedom of speech, there are pragmatic considerations that militate strongly—indeed, conclusively, it seems to me—against Yoram’s call for universities to terminate and suspend those who express and defend ideas that he deems beyond the pale.

Imagine if university administrators were called upon to determine which views are simply unacceptable and should therefore make the student or faculty member who expressed them subject to suspension or termination. Yoram laments, as do I, that a certain ideology (it happens to be left-wing “woke” ideology) is dominant on most university campuses. For years now, we’ve been hearing from partisans of this ideology the allegation that there is a “trans genocide” in this country. Do we want to empower university administrators—presidents, deans, and diversity, equity and inclusion officers—to decide which viewpoints on gender and sexuality constitute “hate speech” or the advocacy of genocide, triggering revocation of faculty tenure or the expulsion of students? That is a question that, it seems to me, answers itself.

These are also the people who have been zealous to preach, from the administrative pulpit, the dogmas of critical race theory and so-called “anti-racist” ideology. Do we trust them to determine which views on issues pertaining to race and culture will be either privileged or sanctioned? I agree with Yoram that calls for “intifada” (or chants of “from the River to the Sea”) are morally unacceptable because they do, in effect, amount to calls for mass violence against Israeli Jews (and sometimes all Jews). But do we really want university administrators deciding whether that speech is permissible or subject to punishment? I think it likely that many would, in effect, affirm the content of such speech if called upon to make those determinations. In fact, it is more likely that a speech code prohibiting even the abstract advocacy of genocide would result in pro-Israel students or faculty being punished for their support of Israeli military actions against Hamas.

After all, a speech code forbidding, say, “advocacy of genocide” would need to be interpreted and enforced by someone—most likely a “diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging” officer or a dean for campus life. Such codes are not self-interpreting or self-enforcing. In the face of such a speech code, anti-Semites, for example, would not chant “Kill all the Jews.” They would use coded language. Then it would fall to, say, the diversity and inclusion dean to interpret it. And it would fall to that same dean to say whether, for example, a statement by a student or professor that “Hamas terrorists must be destroyed” is, in reality, coded language to support allegedly “genocidal Israeli policies toward Palestinians.” Anyone who knows anything about the bureaucracies of most contemporary universities will not be in any doubt about how these judgment calls are likely to be made. We need to repeal existing speech codes and remove the power of university bureaucrats to prosecute students and faculty for speech (and thought) crimes. What we do not need to do is increase their power.

If we were to adopt Yoram’s call for censorship in areas where I am calling for freedom of speech, I invite him—and you, gentle reader—to consider the following question: Would the result be anything other than the further entrenchment of current campus orthodoxies, and the further weakening of protection for dissent and dissenters?

We need to repeal existing speech codes and remove the power of university bureaucrats to prosecute students and faculty for speech (and thought) crimes. What we do not need to do is increase their power.

Hazony’s Four Principles

I was delighted to read that Yoram is encouraging universities to elevate four principles that he rightly thinks are important for university life. Delighted, I say, because I broadly agree with all of them. Delighted further still because all of them (except, perhaps, the fourth) are consistent with a commitment to “absolute free speech,” just to the extent Yoram actually spells the principles out.

His first principle is this: “The university is an educational institution,” meaning that “certain norms of behavior and speech” must be passed down from “instructors and administrators to the students.” Amen! It is absolutely vital that professors and administrators model for students the virtues of honest truth-seeking: charitably disagreeing, never straw-manning opposing arguments, properly citing sources, and so on. Yoram goes on to name an example in which a university falls short of this principle: “[A] university that permits a professor to lead a group of students, bullhorn in hand, to a campus lecture with the purpose of preventing it from taking place, is not one that is in the business of handing down the norms of behavior and speech that are required for a strong culture of free inquiry to propagate. Instead, such a university is inculcating an entirely different set of behavioral norms—namely, those that are useful in bringing a country to its knees.” I couldn’t agree more.

His second principle: “An educational institution must maintain clear boundaries for legitimate speech and behavior.” Indeed it must. Threats, harassment, and incitement to imminent lawlessness and violence have no place in the range of speech protected by our First Amendment; nor should they be protected forms of speech on university campuses. Plagiarism is also improper and should be prohibited. Of course, Yoram goes on to imply that this principle requires forbidding certain speech based on viewpoint—not time, place, or manner, or its constituting actual harassment, genuine threats, incitement to imminent violence, defamation of an individual, etc. I’ve already stated my reasons for disagreeing with him on this point.

Yoram’s third principle is this: “A regime of free speech depends on a system of mutual honor upheld by all individuals and factions.” Now, Yoram does not spell out why and in what sense a regime of free speech depends on a system of mutual honors. But I certainly agree that an “ongoing exchange of honors” in the course of engaging one’s interlocutors is vital for the process of truth-seeking. Yoram names two such “honors” that he learned during his time as a college debater and that are generally applicable to discussion about controversial ideas: “[O]ne must honor a speaker with whom one disagrees by 1) listening to him present his views . . . without interruption (or with only brief interventions); and by 2) replying to his remarks with substantive arguments, rather than with attacks on his person.” Absolutely true. I have preached precisely this message to my students going all the way back to when Yoram was one of them—in my very first year as a professor. Of course, in discussing his third principle, Yoram again suggests that it requires viewpoint-based restrictions on speech, but in fact, each of the honors and norms he spells out relates to the proper approach to engaging with interlocutors. They do not pertain to the political, moral, religious, economic, social, etc. ideas being advanced, or the positions being advocated or defended.

Yoram’s fourth principle is this: “Personal threats must be proscribed.” Indeed they must, and I have said as much in every lecture I’ve given or essay I’ve written in defense of the robust protection of free speech on campus. Obviously, students should not fear for their immediate physical safety as they participate in university life (though they should feel “unsafe” intellectually). In articulating this principle, Yoram goes on to say that “threats” against one’s “nation, religion, sex, political party, and similar categories” must be prohibited. And he implies that anti-Israel protests on university campuses have amounted to such proscription-worthy threats against the Jewish people.

Of course, any threats made against the Jewish people, or any people, are deplorable. But I note that the rhetoric of safety is often deployed in order to shut down legitimate debate. Very often we hear that “transgender,” “LBGT,” or racial or ethnic minority groups feel “unsafe” sharing campuses with students and faculty who dissent from leftist orthodoxies on gender, sexuality, and racial issues. Today we hear that Israeli or even Jewish students’ presence in campus organizations or in athletics or student government makes Palestinian or other students feel “unsafe.” If Yoram’s approach is adopted, I think it extraordinarily likely that university administrators, most of whom have strong left-wing sympathies, would use “safety” as a justification for silencing dissent on a wide array of issues about which reasonable people of goodwill disagree.

I repeat: Someone will have to decide what counts as a threat. For prudential reasons, I think we should consider speech to be subject to proscription qua threat when that speech really does pose an immediate and urgent risk to the physical safety of students. That is a high bar. Notice, however, that whether an instance of speech amounts to a proscription-worthy threat depends not only on what is said but also on the context in which it is uttered. On that point, at least, the university presidents who recently disastrously testified in Congress were correct. If a student attempts to justify the Second Intifada, or calls for a Third, in a coursework essay, that is simply not the same as scrawling “Intifada Now!” on the dorm room door of a Jewish student. The conclusion or sentiment (“Intifada now”) may be the exact same, but it is context that makes the difference. Case-by-case determinations must be made. But it would be gravely unwise to categorize as a proscription-worthy threat every instance of speech that contains arguably anti-Semitic or racist content.

Where We Agree and Disagree

There is much in Yoram’s article with which I agree. He is rightly critical of universities for discriminating against conservatives in hiring and appointing faculty. He rightly identifies the exclusion of conservative viewpoints and the establishment of a far-left monoculture as the root cause of our current campus chaos. I have spent a significant portion of my career identifying these trends as among the most dangerous plagues in academia today. And this is why I’ve vociferously argued for the antidote: viewpoint diversity.

While I appreciate Yoram’s respectful criticisms of my commitment to free speech “absolutism,” I believe they are unsuccessful. And for the sake of our shared goal of the reform and renewal of American higher education, I hope that his calls for censorship of certain ideas will also be unsuccessful. We should be repealing campus speech codes that make the expression of certain viewpoints grounds for punishment. We should certainly not be adding to them new and broader prohibitions of speech. 

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