The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The real issue in the campus speech debate: The university is under assault

There is no doubt that public concern about the vitality of free speech and political debate on American college campuses has legitimate causes. However, the current round of attacks – from the extreme right and left — is a pretext. It is part of a broader assault on the idea of the university itself: on its social functions, on the fundamental importance of advanced knowledge and enlightened debate, on the critical role of science and expertise in public policy and on the significance of intellectuals and serious thought leaders more generally.

It came as a nasty surprise when headlines this past winter and spring proclaimed that free speech at the University of California at Berkeley was dead. The initial image was indelible: an out-of-control bonfire on the central plaza, protesters using black bloc tactics storming the student union, a campus police force overwhelmed by unprecedented violence – which declared under duress that it could no longer control the event and had to cancel the appearance of the self-proclaimed troll and provocateur, Milo Yiannopoulos. The next morning we woke up to a tweet from the president, threatening us with the loss of federal funds over our apparent inability to protect free speech.

The headline was repeated later in the spring when Berkeley was unable to schedule Ann Coulter on the only day she decided to visit the campus (contrary to many press reports, we never “cancelled” her visit). And it was repeated recently when the Berkeley College Republicans complained that their invitation of Ben Shapiro was being blocked, when in fact the administration was actively working with the student group to identify appropriate accommodations in an effort to ensure that the event could go forward without disruption.

The headlines took hold not just because of Berkeley’s historical – and now iconic — relationship to free speech, but because they played into the narrative that college campuses in recent years have morphed into cocoons of political correctness that, in their effort to provide safe environments in which students can live and learn, have shifted from policing protesters to policing speech. This narrative has been so strong in certain quarters that conservative support for universities appears to be at an all-time low.

It is true that there were many students, and a significant group of faculty, who held that Yiannapoulos in particular pushed the envelope beyond what the university should tolerate. Yiannapoulos had been known invidiously to identify individual students, as in the case of a trans student he publicly mocked at an event at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee a few months earlier. And protests around Yiannapoulos’s appearances in Seattle and Davis had turned violent. A group of more than 100 faculty petitioned the administration to cancel the event, citing both public safety concerns as well as the rumors that Yiannapoulos was planning to name and attack individual students.

At Berkeley, as at other college campuses across the country, ensuring that students from minority backgrounds feel welcomed and supported, while also insisting on the unfettered exploration of diverse ideas, raises complicated issues even without the eruption of violent protest. Indeed, free speech controversies are embedded in what might seem to be fundamental contradictions, most notably between widely held campus commitments to diversity, inclusion, and social mobility on the one hand, and the constitutional right to free speech on the other.

Faculty and student concern also reflected the fact that for years, important intellectual currents on college campuses have taken aim at core liberal values on the grounds that they have consistently masked the real power relations that make the speech of the marginalized and oppressed seem far from free. However, the desire to insulate the campus community from offensive views has created even greater challenges for the university, and put at risk the animating spirit of the liberal arts. This “small-L” liberalism – meaning the kind of openness to breadth and diversity subscribed to by “conservatives” and “liberals” alike – is fundamental to the utopian mission of the university.

For the most troubling issue we confront today has to do with the loss of faith – on the part of those holding different political positions – in values and institutions that must provide the foundation for the real political work ahead: to make our society genuinely more inclusive; to take on the great challenges, local and global, that confront us; and to allow deep political differences to be debated with respect and serious efforts at mutual understanding. And here the (small-L) liberal role of the university is central, as it has historically served as a model for the kind of civil society that includes robust intellectual exploration and argument.

This is a vision of the university that has deep opponents, from some quarters of the left, but today much more critically from the right. Increasingly, attacks on the university come from those who oppose diversity in American life, who distrust intellectualism as an elitist enterprise, who believe that universities undermine what they see as authentic American values, and who have come to view science as a corrupt enterprise bent on imposing political objectives under the rubric of objectivity. These opponents have been fueled and supported by big money for decades, as Jane Mayer has brilliantly shown in her recent book, “Dark Money.”

My real worry therefore is that the attention that is increasingly directed towards universities – especially towards public universities such as Berkeley that already grapple with precipitous declines in state funding – is part of a more general and sinister assault. This is the assault on truth, science, humanism, cultural openness, decent social values, global collaboration and institutional commitments to free inquiry, unfettered debate and the unwavering pursuit of new and more reliable knowledge. And let there be no misunderstanding: the targeting of university events by extreme groups on both the left and the right threatening (and on occasion, as at Berkeley, enacting) violence not only requires massive expenditure and represents an immense disruption to campus operations, but undermines the core of what a university stands for. Violence is the exact opposite of free speech, the antithesis of our fundamental values.

There is a growing move to use current controversies to regulate free speech on public campuses. In North Carolina, a new bill – similar to bills that have now been passed in many other states, including Colorado, Tennessee, Utah and Virginia, and that have been introduced in states like Wisconsin and California – promising to ensure the free exercise of speech on public college campuses was just passed by the state legislature. At first blush, the bills seem reasonable, even necessary given some recent controversies. If you read through them, however, you realize that there is another agenda altogether in some of the provisions. Examples: State legislatures are to be given the authority to monitor free speech on campuses, demanding yearly reports, insisting (and thus defining) administrative neutrality on all political issues, imposing new rules for student discipline (including expulsion) around any perceived disruption of free speech (again, defining what disruption might mean, as opposed to the exercise of their own free speech rights), and ultimately taking direct responsibility for controlling campus unrest.

The ideas in these bills draw from language developed and promulgated by the Goldwater Institute, a right-wing think tank that has been actively campaigning to introduce more conservative political views on American campuses. These recent bills, however, do much more than introduce ideas, for they are concerted efforts to take direct political control over public colleges and universities.

We have serious work ahead to ensure that college campuses not only understand the full set of legal issues around free speech but also embrace the need for robust representation and debate across the political spectrum. Those on the left who have sought to close down offensive or dissenting views have provided an easy target for the right. By rejecting the procedural commitment to free speech, they have also undermined the substantive value of free speech, which will come back to haunt them as a precedent to censor expressions of their own views. Those on the right who have used invitations to controversial speakers to create headlines rather than foster intellectual exchange have in turn used the thinnest of procedural reeds to undermine the real substance of free speech as well.

As students begin returning to college campuses at the end of August, so too will more controversy over free speech. At Berkeley, Shapiro will soon speak, and Yiannopolous recently announced that he would be inaugurating his new seven-month college tour, the “Troll Academy,” on our campus in early fall. The good news here is that even for Yiannopolous, Berkeley is still synonymous with free speech. Let us hope, however, that the issues around his visit remain about speech, not violence, and that the debate over controversial speakers becomes less shrill. While we welcome a test of the limits of our spirit of inquiry, we would rather not test the resources of our police force once again.

At the same time, however, efforts either by think tanks like the Goldwater Institute, to say nothing of Fox, Breitbart, and other news media that seek only to caricature and ridicule the very idea of the university, are not designed to open the university up, but rather effectively to shut it down. This is part of a full-throated campaign to close the American mind. The time has come to defend the university vigorously, even as we insist on seeking to open it up further: to new ideas, to even more vigorous debate, to more students who have never had the opportunity for advanced education, to engagement with the world, and to the public more generally for whom the idea that college is a public good needs stressing, and demonstrating, today more than ever.

Nicholas B. Dirks is former chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley.

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