Every year, Princeton University holds a Constitution Day to honor one of the most important documents in human history. This year's was was a little different, with lectures on search and seizure policies in the Snowden era, and another on slavery and the Constitution. And then there was a lecture called "F%*# Free Speech: An Anthropologist's Take on Campus Speech Debate."
Professor Carolyn Rouse, the chair of the Department of Anthropology and director of the program in African Studies asserted, "the way which free speech is being celebrated in the media makes little to no sense anthropologically," according to Campus Reform.
Free speech absolutism doesn't exist because people self-censor themselves in ways society deems appropriate, Rouse told her audience. Culture is the prime determiner of what speech is permissible and what speech is rejected, she said.
"Language is partial," Rouse argued. "It relies on context for comprehensibility, and can have implications that go far beyond simply hurting somebody's feelings. Put simply, speech is costly. So, contrary to the ACLU's statement on their website regarding the role of free speech on college campuses, the academy has never promoted free speech as its central value."
Absolute free speech means every idea is granted equal consideration no matter how crazy it sounds, and for this reason free speech absolutism should not be valued in academia, according to Rouse.
"Free speech is also asymptotic with respect to the goal of allowing people to say whatever they want, in any context, with no social, economic, legal, or political repercussions," Rouse said.
Free speech absolutism fails in an academic setting, Rouse argued, when it allows equal footing to the belief of a climate-change skeptic that "all the science discovered over the last X-number of centuries were irrelevant" and the arguments supporting climate change from a scientist.
Rouse seems to see in this scenario a failure of free speech, rather than an opportunity to challenge ideas and see how they hold up in the marketplace of ideas. Preventing the climate change skeptic from talking about his views won't make them disappear.
And it isn't just academia, Rouse contended. No other social institution values free speech absolutism. Every institution has some sort of speech constraint, she said. A defendant can't walk into a courtroom and just start preaching his innocence. The rules and procedures of court prohibit this and, appropriately, Rouse said.
To some degree Rouse is correct. Institutions ranging from the courts to the media have some restraints on speech. People self-censor for a variety of reasons. Rouse misses the mark when she suggests the goal of free speech is to allow people to say whatever they want, consequences be damned.
The goal of free speech is to allow engagement in open dialogue with others in the marketplace of ideas without the government imposing censorship or punishment. It is with intention that freedom of speech is included in the first of the Bill of Rights. The Founding Fathers valued the ability to speak freely for myriad reasons, particularly because it guaranteed citizens the right to to openly criticize their government.
Freely criticizing the government is something Rouse should support. After all, she started a project called Trumplandia, documenting with essays, articles, poems, video clips, or other media the impact of Trump's presidency. Rouse calls Trump's campaign slogan "Make America Great Again" racist and authoritarian. Without free speech in academia, Rouse's project would not exist.
Absolute free speech does not mean unchallenged speech, as Rouse seems to believe. Rather, it secures the opportunity for even unpopular ideas to be explored. Restraining speech won't make "bad" ideas go away and it won't suddenly changes the minds of people who hold unpopular or even offensive ideas.
As Kat Timpf argues in National Review, "If you understand that you have a right to free speech because you are a member of a free society, then you also understand that the whole 'free society' thing means that all other members have the same right, too."
It is disappointing a professor would so misrepresent freedom of speech at the institution where all ideas should be freely and openly debated. Open dialogue allows for challenges and for ideas to evolve.
Students, professors, and university officials should resist the siren call of restricting free speech on campuses. There is nothing to be gained, only lost, by limiting the engagement with different ideas and beliefs.