Chris Hopson | Harvard University

College campuses around the United States are sites of passionate debates about the idea of free speech, and especially how it intersects with social justice.  This is not new.

College campuses have been hotbeds of activity and debates concerning freedom of expression for decades.  In fact, there was a large-scale student movement centered at the University of California, Berkeley in the mid-1960s called the Free Speech Movement.  At the time, most college students in the US were protesting in favor of liberal and left-wing causes, such as the Civil Rights Movement and an end to the Vietnam War, and against campus administrations they saw as suppressing such political speech.  Today, the story seems more complicated.

Conservative students often experience left-liberal campus environments as suppressing conservative and right-wing speech. At the same time, liberal students often reply that they are standing up for marginalized voices within a socially unjust country and world.  I believe that debates about what should and should not be said in a public forum can be productive, and preferable to authorities simply imposing restrictions on the exchange of ideas without input from constituents. But on many campuses today, it seems as though all sides are becoming exasperated with each other, and constructive engagement is giving way to mean and sometimes violent confrontation.  

How do we get out of this impasse?  I believe that to keep alive the possibility of colleges being places for robust and respectful exchanges of ideas, those of us who participate in debates over free speech should keep in mind three central considerations.

Firstly, free speech is not the same thing as consequence-free speech. Being criticized, protested, or even demonized for something one says does not mean that one’s right to free speech has been violated. One of the values of free speech is that it allows ideas to circulate, but if we equate harsh criticism of ideas (or of the people who share them) with violations of free speech, then the circulation of ideas is stopped in its tracks.  Dissent is critically important.

A second consideration for us to keep in mind when discussing free speech is that there is a distinction between free speech as a legal principle and free speech as a cultural value.  The First Amendment, like all parts of the Constitution, concerns the relationship between government and citizens, not the relationships between citizens. When, for example, a university disinvites a controversial speaker, that speaker’s First Amendment rights have not been violated.  Broadly speaking, non-governmental institutions have no obligation to allow people to use their facilitates or resources for any reason, let alone for the purpose of political speech. Some people may wish this was not the case, but it is right now. Those who criticize universities and other non-governmental institutions for disinviting controversial speakers cannot do so on legal grounds.  But they can do so on cultural grounds, by arguing that free speech is something that all institutions should (but are not legally mandated to) allow, either because of its intrinsic value or its extrinsic benefits.  Reasonable people can disagree about how to balance the cultural value of free speech with other cultural values, such as inclusion and respect, but the cultural value of free speech should never be confused with the legal principle of free speech.

The fact that the cultural value of free speech is debatable is the third central consideration that we should keep in mind.  Debates about the cultural value of free speech often arise in response to controversial speech.  Prime examples include hate speech, other speech that offends marginalized social groups, or speech that just seems unnecessarily inflammatory.  A recent example from my own college is Charles Murray, himself a Harvard alumnus whose 1994 book The Bell Curve garnered controversy for (inaccurately) claiming that variations in intelligence between human beings can be partly explained by race, class, and sex.  Murray was invited here by a student group that seeks to encourage free speech by testing the limits of what kind of speech will be tolerated on campus.  

Some may believe that tolerating or inviting offensive speech is a productive way of promoting free speech, but others may not. No matter what some say, this is not a straightforward question.  A number of countries that are widely considered free and democratic have laws that prohibit certain kinds of offensive speech. For example, Germany and Israel are among a number of countries that have criminalized Holocaust denial.  US jurisprudence denies First Amendment protection to the category of “fighting words”, words that are intended to incite violence or disturb the peace in some other way. Some may think that these laws are justified, but denying Charles Murray a speech at Harvard is not.  This is, in my view, a reasonable position to take, but once we accept that some forms of offensive speech do cross a line, we must engage in the difficult process of determining where that line is.

Our communities may come to the conclusion that the line is closer than some of us would like.  Beyond this, free speech is just one cultural value among many. As I said before, the value of free speech sometimes conflicts with values like inclusion and respect, and communities run the risk of sewing internal divisions, prejudices, and discrimination by making free speech supreme above all other values.  

Once we accept that free speech has acceptable consequences and that it is not always protected by law, we will inevitably have to weigh it against other values that our communities hold.  This is difficult but unavoidable. I believe that all those who engage in discussions and debates about free speech should ask themselves questions such as these: whose speech rights am I most invested in promoting, and why?  What value does the speech that I am promoting bring to my community, and is it greater than other values? If I were in the shoes of someone who is opposed to the speech that I’m promoting, how would I feel, and what would I do?  I believe that serious engagement with questions like these will bear fruit for those of us who want to build and maintain institutions, colleges and other places alike, where ideas can be respectfully exchanged and debated.


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