Commentary

Striking a Deal on Professors’ Free Speech

His words were abhorrent, but Ward Churchill, the University of Colorado professor whose planned appearance at New York’s Hamilton College recently sparked a national uproar, had the right to call many who died on September 11 “little Eichmanns” in a 2001 essay. Constitutionally protected freedom of speech ensured it, and academic freedom — and tenure — reinforced it. Unfortunately, Colorado taxpayers were required to furnish Churchill’s salary. What for him was free speech became compelled speech for them.

That Professor Churchill’s speech was funded by taxpayers has been largely ignored by his supporters. The Boulder Faculty Assembly wrote that “if we stand for…the freedom to question, and of freedom of expression, then we must protect all, including Professor Churchill and others, expressing the most unpopular sentiment.” But nowhere did the professors acknowledge the corollary: freedom requires that no one be forced to support another person’s speech.

Of course, Churchill is not the only professor to have his speech financed by taxpayers. According to the most recent figures from the National Center for Education Statistics, in the 2000-01 academic year the nation’s more than 1,700 public colleges received over $56 billion in state appropriations, which helped support 771,000 professors.

The $56 billion, importantly, did not include state grants or contracts, both of which were directed to schools to purchase specific services, nor did it include tuition paid by students. The money was a pure subsidy: taxpayers and students had little choice in the matter.

Unfortunately, when controversies like Churchill’s boil over, politicians too often denounce the offending statements and suggest that the professor’s speech somehow crossed a threshold of acceptability for a state employee. As Colorado Governor Bill Owens wrote: “No one wants to infringe on Mr. Churchill’s right to express himself. But we are not compelled to accept his pro-terrorist views at state taxpayer subsidy nor under the banner of the University of Colorado.”

Contrary to Owens’ statement, however, if a state finances a public university, taxpayers are compelled to accept professors’ views, even those that are repugnant, because academic free-inquiry requires that no idea or opinion be off-limits, and because government cannot discriminate between one person’s speech and another’s. This, however, collides head-on with taxpayers’ rights not to support speech with which they disagree. In public universities, professors’ freedom of speech is in constant conflict with taxpayers’ rights not to support that speech.

How can we defuse this conflict?

Professor Churchill’s employer, the state of Colorado, is about to offer a partial solution. Starting this fall, Colorado will become the first state to eliminate direct appropriations for undergraduate education and to replace them with vouchers for college students.

The vouchers, which will draw on the new College Opportunity Fund, won’t take the form of checks sent to students, but will be sent to schools in students’ names. This will be explicitly identified on students’ bills, making it clear that students are now receiving funds that would previously have been sent to schools in block grants.

How will this ameliorate the clash between professors’ and taxpayers’ rights? By changing state higher education financing from forced funding to schools to funding for students. Consumers, not lawmakers, will determine whether professors’ speech is subsidized. Students can choose to go to schools that employ professors like Churchill or they can avoid them.

Colorado’s new arrangement will be far from a perfect solution to the free speech problem. Students will only be able to apply their full vouchers to state schools, or half-sized vouchers to three approved private colleges, and taxpayers will still indirectly subsidize speech they find reprehensible. The ideal would be that taxpayers would not be forced to support professors’ speech at all, even indirectly.

But the importance of the shift from funding schools to funding students cannot be denied. It will make consumers, rather than government, a much stronger force in determining if professors like Ward Churchill will continue to be allowed to exercise their speech rights using other people’s money.

Neal McCluskey is an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute.