Midterm Notes on Freedom of Speech at St. Lawrence University

Midterm Notes on Freedom of Speech at St. Lawrence University

(WLF—Remarks at the Board of Trustees meeting, October 21, 2017)

Issues of the day in higher education abound, overlap, and impinge on our future: external economic forces, curricular relevancy, social capital’s acceleration, diversity and inclusion, campus safety, athletic activity, financial aid resources and student debt levels. All of these topics receive frequent public attention. None are easy to understand, manage, or explain. None are perhaps more complicated and difficult than the topic of free speech, a principle in our American society that has an important and peculiar place in the academy.

I wish to share briefly some “midterm notes” on freedom of speech at St. Lawrence. I do so, not because we are now facing a critical test of the issue or that we should anticipate one anytime soon as our turn to witness a dramatic clash of resistant mutual polarities, though if such disruptive moments can occur at sister liberal arts colleges, we have no grounds to claim an exemption. There are, naturally, currents of discussion on campus about freedom of speech, more frequently and intensively than in prior years. This is a sign of the times and requires all of us to think together about its nature and how perceptions of free speech are bending.

Freedom of speech is a difficult issue for at least three reasons: the times are divisive and controversial; emotions that are often raw usually sweep the head away from the heart like a flash flood; and the philosophical framework and distinctions about rights and principles are often lacking in clarity or tolerance for ambiguity. The paradox that even incivility and free speech must co-exist together, that free speech may have no prerequisite of politeness,  a realization that sometimes causes excruciating personal pain, is extremely difficult in an institution so deeply committed to building a positive community. My abiding hope is that our students grasp a significant probability of their lives:  that it’s highly unlikely that they will ever again live in a place and community like this one and that somehow this campus and its liberal arts experience become their guide-star standard for getting it right in community life; that this lasting impression of a good community will travel with them in their careers and future homes.

I am coming to terms with anchor beliefs of my life that are no longer self-evident to others. The liberal arts philosophy itself has been questioned and even rejected by some smart people. The word “irrelevant” was popular in the 60s and 70s, but I never imagined it might one day include habits of learning that make life so intrinsically happy. Nevertheless, we can’t take for granted that the liberal arts are unassailable.

Similarly, the First Amendment is also receiving not only fresh measures of scrutiny, but also skepticism; its future may not be in doubt, but it may change. A 2015 Pew Research Center finding was that 40% of millennials think the government should be allowed to suppress speech that is potentially offensive, particularly to minority groups. By comparison, only 12% of their grandparents would be comfortable with such government regulation of speech. In 2016, a Gallup study discovered that 78% of traditional-age students believe colleges should expose students to all kinds of differing perspectives. And yet, 69% went on to say that they favored limitations on campus speech that slurred or offended others. More than half of these young people surveyed also contended that the charged atmosphere on campus prevents some people from speaking up and speaking out, a hesitancy born of fear that they would risk social standing or a hostile backlash.

I ask myself some questions in the context of national data: have our St. Lawrence students concluded that civility, which ought to be everyone’s preference, also requires some added institutional guard or protection from controversial ideas? So far, I don’t believe there is such a demand on our campus. Are people on campus adept enough at weighing and distinguishing the competing tensions that exist between equality and freedom?  There is a mix of views about this at St. Lawrence.

On other campuses an argument has gone forward that rights of free speech are at odds with equality, and that equality ought to get the edge in the end. The logical extension of this line is that because the “marketplace of ideas,” to use the term coined by Oliver Wendell Holmes, falsely assumes fairness of trade, the marketplace is flawed. They would argue to correct this imbalance; that we should not tolerate speech that risks insidious harm to minority groups historically kept silent. This is the origin of “speech codes” that have become a whipping post that taints all of academe. We do not have such restrictive policies at St. Lawrence. I am not hearing from individual advocates who favor doing so, though I assume some at St. Lawrence may entertain this option.

One of the ironies of this issue is its coupling with another, slightly different operating principle: academic freedom. This is our starting place, the ground of our intellectual integrity—that faculty may freely choose the content of their course materials and pursue scholarly interests with unfettered independence. And yet, while academic freedom may exist as sine qua non, most especially for our faculty, the classroom may not always be as exemplary in the expression of free speech and dissenting points of view. I note with admiration that our faculty is working very seriously to reconcile and align these two variations of freedom so that they are complementary and not hypocritical. In fact, the Faculty Council sponsored an important workshop on the principles and practicalities of managing “discussion, debate, and danger” in the classroom (yes, “danger,” as students in a few instances have apparently come close to blows in a seminar).

A question I am sometimes asked hypothetically is about the special circumstances of outside speakers and, in particular, would there ever be reason to disinvite someone from speaking? I would be opposed in near-absolute terms to taking action that would prohibit a high-risk provocative speaker from our campus, though as a private institution we have the right to decide the question in ways that are not always the same for public universities.

The First amendment is a boulder-like touchstone, but I said if presented with a choice of accommodating a challenging, disturbing speaker or not, I was in the “near-absolute” camp. The First Amendment protects speech; it does not protect violence as a surrogate of speech. I recognize that hate speech takes the question to the brink of an activity resembling violence. And while there is no bright line of discernment or definition, there are guiding principles, though I believe there is a line somewhere, as Holmes once argued in his compelling ideas about “clear and present danger.”

St. Lawrence is not a sovereign state, so how does the standard of “clear and present danger” inform our thinking as a private organization? We have every right, for instance, of refusing space and voice to outside groups to demonstrate on our campus, especially if we have determined likely harm to capital assets and violence to people. We extend those rights of protest and demonstration on campus, however, to our own community members, but with an expectation of non-violence and the hope of peaceable civility. We would probably be somewhat damaged without the latter, but we would survive.

The University of Chicago in its recent “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression” provides some national leadership for all of us who are so deeply committed to the vitality and idea of a university. This document contains a poignant set of criteria that speaks to my own professional concerns and current thinking:

Although the University greatly values civility, and although all members of the University community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.

The freedom to debate and discuss the merits of competing ideas does not, of course, mean that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish. The University may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University. In addition, the University may reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University. But these are narrow exceptions to the general principle of freedom of expression, and it is vitally important that these exceptions never be used in a manner that is inconsistent with the University’s commitment to a completely free and open discussion of ideas.

Finally, how does St. Lawrence teach freedom of speech? What is it now doing as its norm, as opposed to waiting and reacting in a moment of possible exception? I checked the course catalog, for starters. And I am confident the issue is being thoroughly studied in courses called “Rhetoric and Citizenship,” “Democracies and Its Critics,” “Constitutional Law” (with lots of attention on the First Amendment, according to the description), “History of the Civil Rights Movement,” “Sexual Citizenship,” Torture, Truth, and Memory,” and “Presidential Campaign Rhetoric.”

If doing is also learning, then we should admire our student government (the Thelomathesian Society) for the recent initiative and action it has taken. Thelmo has reserved a pool of funds to be available for any new student organization wishing to form itself around political philosophies not currently or sufficiently represented on campus. The students genuinely want freedom of speech for dissenting or minority opinions, even though these same opinions may actually have won the majority of votes in surrounding St. Lawrence County.

I offer one more example of teaching, modeling, or exemplifying our principles around freedom of speech. The incumbent Piskor Professor J. J. Jockel proposed a seminar course for sophomores that required the approval of the faculty committee on academic affairs, which he received. This is not an automatic wave-through process. The course perhaps differentiates St. Lawrence from many other campuses by its very title: “Make America Great Again.” It will attempt something brave, but also necessary if we are to be a community of scholars who study together, discuss our interpretations, and try to fit the story into social and historical context.

Professor Jockel describes his course this way: “The “Make America Great Again” seminar will study President Donald J. Trump: his life story and his astonishing rise to power in the 2016 elections, and especially his presidency’s still-early months and its prospects.” Professor Jockel also says, “When the course meets I will tell the students right away, first, that I am not interested in their defining or revealing themselves as Trump supporters or opponents. Similarly, I will not define or reveal myself. Second, the motto of the course will be: “less opinion, more analysis.” The course will read the most recent scholarship, as new books are pouring off the press, and students will follow Twitter first-hand with the class having its own restricted account.

In many ways the shape of the First Amendment at St. Lawrence appears very healthy, but I would not say we are out of the woods in our effort to avoid traps, such as the false dichotomy between freedom of speech and the priority values of inclusion. In fact, it feels like we’ve just entered the woods both as a society and as a liberal arts university. The admonition that Justice Holmes made at the end of his life, was the imperative call to a principle of free thought, whereby he also came down unusually hard in his attachment to a particular form of freedom: the freedom of thought and expression, but without exclusions—“not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought we hate.”