House of Representatives Holds Hearing on Threats to Free Speech on College Campuses

Aug 10, 2017 |  Benjamin Giles

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House of Representatives Holds Hearing on Threats to Free Speech on College Campuses

Aug 10, 2017 | 

Benjamin Giles

American politics have never been so polarized, yet both Republicans and Democrats say they are concerned about free speech. A bipartisan July 2017 hearing by the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform focused on threats to free speech on college campuses. It reveals a growing concern that colleges and universities are creating a generation of censorious students.

The hearing made clear that there are two preconditions that must be met before the campus speech environment improves. First, colleges and universities must clearly distinguish between hate speech and hate crimes. Second, institutions of higher education must foster an environment where all parties – students, faculty, and administrators – recognize and uphold their responsibilities to respect free speech.

Voltaire’s attitude might serve as the model for creating a healthy speech environment. He famously declared, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” In her opening remarks, Representative Val Demings (D-FL) appeared to follow Voltaire’s example. An African-American woman and former chief of the Orlando Police Department, Demings described how, as a police officer, she provided protection for various unsavory groups, including the KKK, as they exercised their First Amendment rights. She was willing to put herself in harm’s way for these groups “not because I agreed with their speech, but because I agreed with their right to speak, their right as guaranteed by the First Amendment.”

Demings illustrates a key point that has been upheld by the Supreme Court multiple times and under a variety of circumstances: in treating speech qua speech, citizens and public institutions ought to adhere to the principle of viewpoint neutrality. Speech, even when it takes odious forms, ought to be tolerated, engaged, and even rebuffed, but not simply shut down.

That leads to a hotly debated question: is there a distinction between hate speech and hate crimes? Many believe that some types of speech are themselves violent acts. Nadine Strossen, a free speech advocate, pointed in her testimony to a Supreme Court case for the answer. In Schenck v. United States, the Supreme Court held that speech can be constitutionally suppressed only if it presents a “clear and present danger” to society or citizens. In this case, Strossen elaborated, speech or acts that place an individual under the reasonable (not subjective) fear that they may be attacked ought to be prohibited, whereas speech whose content one dislikes should not. Colleges and universities, then, can criticize hate speech, but not suppress it. Shutting down hate speech would deprive students of an opportunity to challenge the ideas they disagree with.

Protecting viewpoint neutrality and contentious speech requires dedication, and all three of the main actors on campuses (students, faculty, and administrators) have a role to play. Another witness, Michael Zimmerman, the former Provost of Evergreen State College, had a great deal to say about these roles. Zimmerman’s perspective is noteworthy, as Evergreen State College remains embroiled in a controversy over the refusal of biology professor Bret Weinstein to leave campus during a “day of absence,” on which white students and faculty were to stay home in homage to their black colleagues. Weinstein is now suing the school for $3.8 million for creating a hostile work environment and failing to defend him from violent protesters.

Most recent incidents suppressing free speech on campuses have been the result of student action. (Think of UC Berkeley, Claremont McKenna College, and Middlebury College.) However, as Zimmerman pointed out, students do not bear sole responsibility for maintaining a healthy speech environment. Administrators are responsible for upholding the founding principles of their institutions. They have a duty to act and to keep tense situations from exploding as they have at a growing list of schools. Zimmerman expressed his belief that administrators can resolve difficult situations peacefully and reduce the threat of violence.

Faculty, too, must play a role. All professors (but especially those in the humanities) have the difficult but crucial task of instructing students in a way that fosters open, honest debate and leaves room for differing viewpoints. A professor who does little but preach dogma is harming both individual students and the campus community as a whole.

Professors and administrators must not allow a vocal and radical minority to hijack higher education. They must ensure that cooler heads prevail and sometimes that may involve confronting provocative or odious speakers, making sure that they are appropriately challenged and debated. They should follow the “clear and present danger” test, under which they are justified in keeping truly violent and dangerous speakers, who urge that physical harm be done to others, away from campus. Otherwise, professors and administrators must ensure that speech is respected at their institutions.

In order for the speech environment on campuses to be healthy, students need to have an attitude of intellectual humility. They need to begin, as Socrates did, with the understanding that their knowledge is incomplete, and therefore they have a great deal to learn from the world around them and from those they encounter. They need to be willing to be exposed to new ideas, even if those ideas may shake their previously held beliefs. That is what universities are meant to be: forums for the sharing and development of ideas.

Shutting down speech does not contribute to healthy intellectual development: quite the opposite. The Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s hearing demonstrates that more and more citizens, both on and off campus, realize that the current speech climate on college campuses is detrimental to society as a whole. Republicans and Democrats have shown that free speech need not be a partisan issue, and it would behoove colleges and universities to take note.

Benjamin Giles is a rising senior at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio studying Philosophy and Political Science. He is working at NAS during Summer 2017 as a communications intern.

Image: US Capitol South.jpg by Martin Jacobsen // CC BY-SA 3.0

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