Statehouses, not Stanford Students, Threaten Speech on CampusRoundup
tags: free speech, academic freedom
Eduardo Peñalver is the president of Seattle University. Formerly, he was dean of Cornell Law School.
In recent weeks, academic leaders have defended expressive and academic freedom with noteworthy force. Martha E. Pollack, president of Cornell, vetoed an undergraduate student assembly’s resolution calling for “traumatic content” warnings in class. Penn State’s president, Neeli Bendapudi, released a video giving a rationale for having controversial speakers on campus. “The best way to combat speech is with more speech,” she argued, and the best way “to combat bad ideas is with better ideas.”
At Stanford, an incident in which a conservative federal judge was heckled by law students led the law school’s dean, Jenny S. Martinez, to issue a letter underscoring the importance of academic freedom. The letter also chastised the protestors for violating the university’s policy on disruption and announced a mandatory half-day educational session for students on freedom of speech. Clocking in at 10 pages and several thousand words, Martinez’s letter presented a persuasive and scholarly rebuttal of the law students’ argument that disrupting the judge’s speech represented a legitimate exercise of their own speech rights.
The national media has been quick to connect these dots. The Washington Post editorial board called the Martinez letter a “turning point” for campus speech after years of encroaching safe spaces and trigger warnings. A FIRE representative suggested to The New York Times that a “Stanford Effect” might be encouraging other colleges to robustly defend free speech. A Chronicle headline announced: “Presidents Are Changing Their Tune on Free Speech.”
The fact that Martinez’s letter, written in response to her students’ constrained conception of expressive freedom, is being hailed as a watershed moment — even as dozens of states consider or implement bans on critical race theory — reveals a great deal about the complex and often confused nature of our national conversation about freedom of speech on (and off) campus.
As a university president and former law school dean, I agree with almost everything in Martinez’s letter. I applaud her conviction that the range of opinions that universities must allow on campus is broad and necessarily includes viewpoints that are deeply offensive to segments of the campus community. And I believe, with her, that universities may restrict certain kinds of speech. Shouting down an unwelcome speaker is speech that should not be allowed on campus, even though, as a First Amendment matter, that kind of speech might be permissible in other contexts. But, even if restrictions on certain kinds of speech are necessary to preserve the teaching and learning environment, I share Martinez’s skepticism about the administrability of any but the most narrowly drawn exceptions to the baseline of free expression.
I also acknowledge that Martinez’s letter required significant courage. There are many loud voices on campus that expressly reject the values of free speech and robust intellectual debate. Last year, for example, a department chair at Williams College dismissed “this idea of intellectual debate and rigor as the pinnacle of intellectualism,” which she said “comes from a world in which white men dominated.” Standing up to these voices can be unpleasant and sometimes professionally dangerous.
Importantly, however, the Martinez letter was penned in response to students. When students prevent speech from occurring (for example by heckling or by participating in social-media campaigns), their success requires the cooperation, tacit approval, sheer incompetence, or mere fecklessness of administrators. And yet we should be clear that student heckling falls within a category of threats to campus speech that we are well equipped to manage. As the Washington Post editorial board put it, when it comes to student disruptions, “academic institutions have the power to defend their fundamental values — and are willing to use it.”
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