It seems a lot of people are confused about freedom of speech. On one side, you get lots of folks who cry “free speech!” whenever someone gets in any trouble for saying something with which they agree. Think the uproar over Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson being suspended by A&E for saying controversial things about homosexuality and race. On the other side are those who seem indifferent to freedom of speech when someone says something they don’t like even if the punishment is coming from government. Think of the response of University of Oklahoma president David Boren to the vile song sung by members of the schools’ SAE frat.
The first group — Robertson defenders — are wrong on the legal matter of free speech because no one has a right to have a private entity pay for, or associate with, someone who proclaims things with which they disagree. You could argue that A&E as company policy should have let Robertson speak his mind without repercussions, but freedom of expression as protected by the Constitution did not apply. Nor should it: People, and the organizations and communities they form, should be able to define for themselves, voluntarily, the behavioral norms and values they want to uphold. That’s what civil society is all about, and it is crucial for balancing harmony and freedom.
Balancing harmony and freedom is a major reason that having publicly funded universities is problematic, as illustrated in the Oklahoma case and many others. Even places dedicated to the unfettered pursuit of knowledge and ideas benefit from shared, voluntary norms of behavior. For instance, little is helped and much is harmed if debate devolves into the hurling of insults. A school as a voluntary community of scholars should be able to establish rules and ramifications to curb that so new knowledge and ideas can be efficiently pursued. But being a government entity, ironically, makes enforcing norms almost impossible. And it should: people must have a right to speak without fear of repercussions that ultimately come at the point of a gun, which is what government rule — as opposed to civil society — ultimately is.
Having the ability to punish speech is, frankly, crucial to society. Which is a big reason that government — which must not be allowed to punish disliked speech — should not run institutions of higher education.