Academic Freedom and Free Speech

This speech was given at the Troy University Johnson Center on March 16, 2016.

I want to thank the Johnson Center for inviting me to speak to you today about academic freedom and free speech. That’s a burning issue across the country, of course, as you’ll see from the incidents I’ll mention in a minute. That will give you just a glimpse of the problem, however. It’s that big. And it covers a wide range of areas where today’s colleges and universities are involved — from teaching to publishing, administering, policing student and faculty behavior, and more.

Let me make it clear at the outset, however, that in each of the areas I’ll touch on, I’m not here to defend insensitive or boorish speech or behavior as such, the remedy for which in any event, in most cases, is more speech or simple shunning, not the often draconian sanctions we see so often today. But I am here to defend the right to speak, a right that beyond the campus is protected in the public sector by the First Amendment, as here at a public university, and in the private sector by freedom of contract. In fact, the failure to distinguish between defending the right to speak and defending the speech that flows from the exercise of that right will be at the core of my remarks today.1

And one more preliminary: In today’s context, I suppose I need also to begin with a “trigger warning.” Some of you may find some of what I have to say to be a “micro-aggression.” So be it. This is, after all, a university. If one cannot speak freely here, where can one?

Yet we know that today, university speech codes and campus free-speech zones are not only ubiquitous but solicitous of anything but free speech — turning the campus free-speech movement of the 1960s on its head. These codes typically prohibit comments and actions that are “unwelcomed or offensive,” as if the speaker would know what was subjectively unwelcomed or offensive in the mind of another. And consistent with today’s identity politics, these codes prohibit and punish speech or conduct concerning sex, race, age, religion, national origin, color, marital status, pregnancy, disability, sexual orientation, and more. And the speech or conduct can take the form of gestures, remarks, jokes, innuendo, satire — even shunning or exclusion.

Lest it be thought by the unaware that these restrictions have been imposed by imperious university administrators on an unwilling faculty and student body, it’s more complicated than that. The radicals of the ’60s, ensconced in the academy ever since, have nurtured a culture of “political correctness” that is the very foundation of these codes and all that surrounds them. Thus it takes but a spark to propel those immersed in this culture into action across the country. In the current academic year, that spark arose from racial incidents at the University of Missouri, which led to charges by students there that the university president didn’t respond quickly and sensitively enough and, in short order, to his resignation.2

That led in turn, however, to nation-wide protests. At Amherst, for example, students demanded that the college president issue a statement saying that the Amherst community does not tolerate the actions of students who posted “All Lives Matter” posters and “Free Speech” posters that stated “in memoriam of the true victim of the Missouri Protests: Free Speech.”3 At Brown, protesters demanded “visible and administrative accountability for departments and centers that have a tradition of racist hiring and retention policies and anti-Black pedagogy.”4 Princeton students demanded the removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from Princeton buildings.5 An ugly scene at Dartmouth included Black students taking over the library and harassing white students studying there.6 And at Claremont, students drew up a long list of demands, including sensitivity training for all faculty.7

1 Roger Pilon, “Desecrating Principle for the Sake of a Symbol,” Washington Post (June 14, 1995), https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1995/06/14/desecrating-principle-for-the-sake-of-asymbol/11581b4c-dbae-483c-a1f4-d217a9f80c59/.
2 Eliott C. McLaughlin, “University of Missouri president and chancellor step down amid race row,” CNN (Nov. 9, 2015, 10:06 PM), http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/09/us/missouri-football-players-protest-president-resigns/.
3 Allison Pohle, “Amherst students release list of demands protesting ‘free speech’ signs,” Boston.com (Nov. 13, 2015), http://www.boston.com/news/education/2015/11/13/amherst-students-release-list-of-demands-protestingfree-speech-signs.
4 Louise Sloan, “Keeping Brown Accountable,” Brown Alumni Magazine, http://www.brownalumnimagazine.com/content/view/4098/31/ (last visited Apr. 12, 2016).
5 Andy Newman, “At Princeton, Woodrow Wilson, a Heralded Alum, Is Recast as an Intolerant One,” New York Times (Nov. 22, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/23/nyregion/at-princeton-addressing-a-racist-legacy-andseeking-to-remove-woodrow-wilsons-name.html.
6 Jessica Chasmar, “Black Lives Matter protestors berate white students studying at Dartmouth library,” Washington Times (Nov. 16, 2015), http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/nov/16/black-lives-matter-protesters-beratewhite-student/.
7 Hannah Oh, “CMC Students Feel Marginalized, Demand Resources and Resignations,” Claremont Independent, (Nov. 12, 2015), http://claremontindependent.com/cmc-students-feel-marginalized-demand-resources-andresignations/.

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Roger Pilon is vice president for legal affairs at the Cato Institute, founding director of Cato’s Center for Constitutional Studies, and publisher of the Cato Supreme Court Review.