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Free Expression on Campus: What the Authors of 4 Books Are Saying About This Hot Controversy

This article concerns these four books

● Frank Furedi, What’s Happened to the University?  A Sociological Exploration of Its Infantilisation (Routledge, 2017)

● Claire Fox, ‘I Find that Offensive!’ (Biteback Publishing, 2016)

●  Jonathan Zimmerman, Campus Politics:  What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2016)

●  Campus Speech in Crisis:  What the Yale Experience Can Teach America, Introduction by Nathaniel A.G. Zelinsky (Encounter Books, 2016).    

Throughout American history, every genuinely progressive reform movement has found free speech to be its friend.  This is notably true of the abolitionist movement and then the civil rights movement.  And it has been especially true of student movements—most prominently, the aptly-named Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964.  Nowadays, however, in the words of more than one observer, students seem not to want freedom of speech but freedom from speech.  How and why did this come about?  And what does it mean?  The four books reviewed here offer some answers.

First some context:  in the years leading up to 2015, campus protests targeted “controversial” speakers more and more often.  The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) counted 95 protests between 2009 and the spring of 2014, 39 of which resulted in cancellation of an event.  That was twice as many protests as happened in the 20 years between 1987 and 2008.  In the spring of 2014, varied causes prompted protests. Haverford College students criticized Robert Birgenau, former Chancellor at the University of California at Berkeley,  for the university police’s handling of a student protest in 2011, and sent him a list of demands that he was to meet before he would be acceptable to them as commencement speaker.  Rather than do so, Birgenau declined to come.  Condoleezza Rice withdrew from Rutgers University’s commencement after students opposed her invitation because of her role in the Iraq war.  Christine Lagarde, the first woman to head the International Monetary Fund, was accused by Smith College students of establishing policies that “led directly to the strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.”  Like Birgenau and Rice, she decided not to participate in the ceremonies.

Racial issues were a factor in some of these earlier protests, but they were not the only ones.  By 2015 the focus had narrowed, and the rationales behind the protests had done so, too.  The national movement for racial justice that emerged after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014 and similar incidents made race the focus of protests and demonstrations across the country, particularly at elite colleges and universities.  Perhaps inevitably, they became entangled with the free speech issue.

A confrontation at Yale may have been the most dramatic and visible one.  Erika Christakis, associate master of Silliman College, responded to an administrator’s email calling for sensitivity in Halloween costumes with her own email, asking students if it might be better to at least tolerate Halloween costumes that were “a little bit obnoxious.”  Soon afterward, student protesters angrily confronted Nicholas Christakis, her husband and master of Silliman College, and demanded that he apologize.  When he didn’t do so to their satisfaction, one finally exploded, “Who the fuck hired you?” and informed him that he should resign because his job was “not about creating an intellectual space [but rather] creating a home.”  (The ruckus can be seen on video: https://www.thefire.org/yale-students-demand-resignations-from-faculty-members-over-halloween-email/.) The resulting, ongoing debate embroiled students, faculty, and administrators for months.  President Peter Salovey told protesters, “We failed you,” and announced plans and programs for “educating our community about race, ethnicity, diversity, and inclusion.”

Dozens of institutions around the country experienced similar unrest.  Although sparked by very different kinds of incidents, often apparently trivial, the protests made remarkably similar demands, expressed in remarkably similar rhetoric:  students wanted “safe spaces,” where they could be free of “microaggressions,” and they demanded “trigger warnings” to protect them from disturbing materials, in and out of the classroom.  The commonalities should not have been surprising.  Activists from all over communicated by social media and the internet.  As of December 8, 2015, “WeTheProtesters” (www.thedemands.org) had compiled lists of demands from more than 75 schools, to be used as models by other ones.  Despite often sympathizing with the larger concerns (such increasing financial aid, bringing more minority students and faculty to campus (raised by the protesters, critics often focused on their disregard for free speech and academic freedom, But the issues proved difficult to sort out during heated debate:  free speech advocates were likely to be dismissed as “insensitive” to racial justice, and few faculty, students, or administrators wanted to run that risk when campuses were so combustible.

During the current school year, free speech seems to have been less openly contested on campus, probably for several reasons, all of them hard to quantify.  Sheer exhaustion probably plays a part.  Protesters get tired; administrators and faculty do, too, so they try to avoid provoking further outbursts.  And the protests did exact some commitments, like the ones at Yale, from many schools.  Most recently, there is the dramatic change in the national climate after the November election.  Microaggressions on campus may pale in comparison to the array of possible “macroaggressions” by the Trump administration that seem to loom ever closer. 

Whatever the reason, the resulting lull has allowed analysts to catch up with the action.  Some of it is reflective; some of it, predictably polemical, often in ways unlikely to persuade anyone not already persuaded.  Herewith some capsule reviews of four books that are worth reading.

The most wide-ranging of the four is Frank Furedi’s What’s Happened to the University?  A Sociological Exploration of its Infantilisation.  Furedi, a British sociologist, takes his evidence from the United States, the United Kingdom, and even Australia and New Zealand.  Ranging so widely, he helps us avoid seeing the issues as strictly “American” ones.  The trends he identifies cut across national boundaries and cultures, and he argues that what we see and hear on campus is a product of how children are being socialized by “powerful cultural forces” before students get anywhere near higher education. 

The subtitle is provocative, but Furedi explains and defends it well.  In particular, he notes the growing impulse to encourage “children and youth to interpret existential problems as psychological ones.” “[M]any young people,” he says, are continually educated to understand the challenges they face through the language of mental health.  Not surprisingly, they often find it difficult to acquire the habit of independence and make the transition to forms of behavior associated with the exercise of autonomy.”  Unlike college students in the 1960s, who often wanted administrators to just go away, today’s look to the growing phalanx deans and therapists and other administrators for validation and protection.

The bulk of Furedi’s book looks at how this “medicalization of the university experience” has occurred and at the multiple origins of the jargon that accompanies the process.  Terms that once had relatively well-defined meanings are applied to all sorts of situations where they are arguably not relevant, resulting in escalated tension and argument.  “Cultural appropriation,” for instance, threatens “to turn every form of cultural interaction into a potential site for conflict.”  (Recall that one spark of conflict at Oberlin was the allegedly inappropriate preparation of ethnic food in the school’s dining hall.)

Furedi is particularly good at analyzing the “performative” aspects of protest, which entail repetitive rituals, similar to religious cults, designed primarily to communicate with one’s fellow protesters.  Outsiders might be included in the audience, but the main intent is to confirm one’s own righteousness to one’s peers.  He is also troubled by the characterization of microaggressions as acts that may be committed unintentionally or unconsciously, and the assertion that only the target of such acts is capable of recognizing when a “microaggression” has been committed.  The victim is thus defined as the sole witness, prosecutor, judge, and jury.  (That some schools have formed “bias response teams” or are thinking about adding microaggressions to their list of student conduct code violations means that we are on the verge of codifying this dubious notion.) 

Throughout, Furedi provides a thorough intellectual and cultural history—from past theorists like Karl Mannheim and Christopher Lasch to current ones like Derald Wing Sue, the father of microaggression theory—and a telling critique.  He notes that one of the most disturbing aspects of such theories is “the growing conviction that people’s inner life is a legitimate terrain for intervention by policy makers and experts.”  That observation leads to his powerful final chapter on the implications of all this for academic freedom.  What began years ago with campus speech codes is now creeping into the classroom with “prescriptive guidelines on pedagogy.  If academics can be told what words they should use in their course material on learning outcomes, [then] why kick up a fuss when guidelines on microaggression and speech lay down the law on what words to avoid?”

The overall result:  “The deification of the commandment ‘Do Not Offend’ has transformed academic freedom into a freedom contingent on other people’s sensibility.”  This transformation has been hastened by the growing influence of administrators whose job descriptions give them a mandate to mediate disputes between the putative offended party and the alleged offender.  Deans and similarly placed staff members often see academic freedom as a “second-order value,” a “negotiable commodity that is subordinate to other concerns,” such as the individual’s sense of security, belief in fair treatment, and desire to be recognized.  

Furedi’s book is scholarly and precise, with arguments based on evidence and careful definition of abstractions.  Claire Fox’s ‘I Find That Offensive’ is more free-swinging and less likely to attract and hold readers not already persuaded of her position.  A British journalist who frequently offers commentary on British television, she does not worry overmuch about offending with her choices of words:  she consistently refers to today’s students as “Generation Snowflake,” making it unlikely that any of them will find their way to her concluding chapter, an “open letter” to them.  But her book is worth reading precisely because, although it draws upon some American sources, it looks most closely at the United Kingdom and examines in more detail some of the child-rearing ideas that she avers had great influence on the Millennial Generation’s upbringing. 

Free speech in Britain has always been more circumscribed than it is in the United States.  Fox cites a relatively recent stricture, Section 18 of the Public Order Act of 1986, which “criminalizes speech likely to stir racial hatred whether or not the speaker intended the speech to be interpreted as such.”  And she gets into the particulars of such things as the Student Voice movement and educational programs that promote children’s self-esteem.  Like Furedi, she criticizes the “medicalization” of society, and not just of childhood (one study shows “‘an increase in the prevalence of reported anxiety disorders of more than 1,200 percent since 1980.’”  She is particularly hard on “official interventions into young people’s lives”:  “adult society,” she says, has “scared the young by ‘catastrophising’ an endless list of existential fears, made them over-anxious about their own bodies and abuse from adults and peers, have elided abusive words with physical violence, medicalized the perfectly natural upsets of growing up, and created a knee-jerk assumption that they need to be protected in order to be safe.  At the same time, we have shielded them from criticism, suspended our critical judgement to massage their self-esteem, privileged and fawned over their student voice (at the expense of our own adult authority), and adapted education around their desires and interests.  We have, in short, created our own over-anxious but arrogant, easily-offended but entitled, censoriously thin-skinned Frankenstein monster:  Generation Snowflake.”

That’s quite a catalogue, and there’s truth in it.  But Fox ducks the question of how it is that so many members of “Generation Snowflake” are not, in fact, so delicate.  (To be fair, Furedi doesn’t really get into that, either.)  That fact is one of many bits of contextual information that Jonathan Zimmerman supplies in his level-headed overview of the campus free-speech scene, Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know.  (Full disclosure:  he and I have had some conversations on various subjects in the past, but we’ve never met in person.)  A versatile historian of education who doesn’t shrink from addressing complex, controversial topics (a recent book:  Too Hot to Handle:  A Global History of Sex Education), Zimmerman has a gift for being precise and analytical without being inflammatory, a gift he that he uses to reach the proverbial “general reader” in frequent op-ed pieces for major newspapers. 

Campus Politics is aimed at that general reader, but there is plenty there for academics, too.  One of Zimmerman’s great strengths, as might be hoped for in a historian, is context.  Readers won’t learn about the wide world of Anglo-American higher education, but they will be well informed about colleges and universities in the United States.  Like Furedi and Fox, he notes the “increased psychologizing of campus politics” (indeed, Furedi cites some of Zimmerman’s work) but he correctly notes, after looking at the data, that most colleges have not witnessed the kinds of upheaval that shook schools like Yale and Missouri, and that even at those institutions most students are not activists:  “Students go to college to get ahead, which usually means leaving politics behind.”  To be sure, Zimmerman adds, “there really are serious threats to free speech at our universities:  stolen student newspapers, canceled speakers, and—most of all—a campus environment where growing numbers of students and professors say that they self-censor for fear of repercussions.”  

That kind of balance, or appreciation of complexity, is characteristic of Zimmerman.  Occasionally, as when he argues against relying solely on law enforcement to deal with sexual assault cases, his conclusion sounds rather vague:  “At the end of the day, the university will have to police itself.”  Okay.  But how?  Usually, however, whether asking just what is meant by “political correctness,” examining speech codes, exploring the possibility of a “new McCarthyism” in academia, or the exploring the implications of “psychologized” campus politics, he shows that too often such problems (and solutions to them) are defined and debated simplistically.  Ultimately, he comes across as concerned but not panicked—and unwilling to apply easy labels to the people involved.  No “Generation Snowflake” rhetoric here. 

So does Zimmerman think that Millennials are a “coddled” generation?  “In economic terms,” he says, the current generation of college students is probably the least coddled cohort to ever walk onto campus.”  Also, most students do not support “efforts to shield their eyes and ears from disagreeable words or ideas.”  And worries about psychological damage, he notes, “especially to minority minds…date to the dawn of the civil rights era itself.”  Still he agrees that the trend is growing, and he finds it troubling.  Students who see themselves primarily as consumers demand to feel “safe” and “comfortable.”  And they often get sympathy and support from within the university itself. 

In his book’s conclusion, Zimmerman examines the consequences of the way the “administrative university” has grown.  Paradoxically, he says, today’s students “expect more of the university, even as they trust it less.”  And the growing cadre of administrators called upon to deliver on those expectations is growing relentlessly.  A perfect illustration of the ongoing tensions might be Oberlin’s 2013 initiative for trigger warnings, “drafted by a task force of one vice-president, two deans, three students, two alumni, and only one faculty member (who was promoted to dean shortly after that).”  But then Oberlin’s faculty voted it down. 

One might be tempted to say that, for faculty at least, this incident only proves that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”  But Zimmerman is hardly sanguine about the way attitudes toward free speech have been trending.  What he sees in the larger picture, however, is less bleak and forboding than what Furedi and Fox see.  Sometimes it helps to step back and take a deep breath.

The last—and briefest—of the four books reviewed here is useful mainly for the way it can highlight how academic times have changed.  Campus Speech in Crisis:  What the Yale Experience Tells Us is most useful because it puts into print the famous Woodward Report (January 1975), Yale’s response 42 years ago to a series of challenges to free expression on campus, including attempts to silence speakers.  (To Zimmerman, the Report “has an almost antiquarian ring today, especially in its elevation of free speech over every other university goal or purpose.”  That he may be right could be taken as a measure of how the university has evolved—or devolved.)  Also included is the text of the University of Chicago’s brief “Report of the Committee on Free Expression” (2014), which very much echoes Yale.  Far from seeing the Report as “antiquarian,” the commentators—Judge Jose Cabranes, Yale law school professor Kate Stith, and Yale law student Nathaniel A. G. Zelinsky—agree that the 1975 report, named for its chair, the distinguished historian C. Vann Woodward, is right to designate free expression the preeminent academic value, even at the expense of “civility.”  (Conservative columnist George Will, in a perfunctory, two-page preface, agrees.)  Zelinsky’s 15-page introduction outlines some of the events that led President Kingman Brewster to form the Committee, but the version of the report printed here is truncated:  it includes “much of [political scientist Robert] Dahl’s and [law professor Harry] Wellington’s sections, though slightly less of Woodward’s Yale-specific history.”  One Committee member—a student—filed a dissent.  His statement, a harbinger of things to come, is not included here.  The “Halloween incident” of November 2015 and its fallout are mentioned, but not described in detail.

Campus Speech in Crisis, in short, is a hurried, rather redundant production whose main reason for being is to provide hard copy of two primary documents, the Woodward Report and the University of Chicago’s statement.  People interested in reading the entire Report, including the student’s dissent, can readily find it online:  http://yalecollege.yale.edu/deans-office/policies-reports/report-committee-freedom-expression-yale.  And the University of Chicago’s statement is available all over the internet, starting here:  https://provost.uchicago.edu/sites/default/files/documents/reports/FOECommitteeReport.pdf.  (That statement was adopted or endorsed by other university faculties, including Princeton and Purdue, as well as FIRE.

Cabranes and Stith note that the Woodward Report advocated three steps to ensure “effective and vigorous defense of our values”:  universities should educate their members about the role of free expression on campus; define acceptable limits of campus protest; and develop procedures for dealing with the presence of controversial speakers.  Reasonable steps, to be sure.  In times like these, they are not merely reasonable, but essential.  And some institutions, at least, seem to be taking them.  And they need to be taken even—perhaps especially—at schools that are not so much in the public eye.  FIRE notes that over 90% of public colleges and universities still have policies that violate the First Amendment; over 230 have “bias response” systems that “encourage students to report on one another and on their professors whenever they perceive that someone’s expression is biased.”  At least 42% percent of those teams include police or security personnel.

Things may seem relatively quiet on campus at the moment, but there are certainly substantial tensions below the surface, and self-aggrandizing collegiate bureaucracies grind on.  In the society at large, the unfortunate processes of socialization identified by Furedi continue.  As reported in “The Economist,” a recent Populus poll of students in 15 countries, including the United States, showed that fewer than half agreed that “people should be allowed to express non-violent opinions even if they offend minorities.”   And there’s potential for more trouble from the right, with the wild card that is the Trump administration.  When a scheduled speech by professional provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos had to be cancelled because of violent protests, the world was greeted with this early-morning presidential tweet: “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view - NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”  Relying perhaps on “alternative facts,” the President’s message overlooked actual ones:  University officials tried hard to allow the speech to go on and that the violent demonstrators were not students, but local radicals.

All of which suggests that we should remember the ancient curse:  “May you live in interesting times.”  But thanks to the books reviewed here, we now have a better understanding of the on-campus forces making college life so…interesting.