The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Yesterday, I suggested that universities have a free speech problem, even if they do not necessarily face a free speech crisis. If the problem is not addressed by universities themselves, then it will be addressed by outside actors who, even if they act with good intentions, may not act in ways that are very helpful.
If universities want to fend off outside intervention and, more importantly, be true to their own mission, they need to be proactive in nurturing a better free speech culture on their own campuses. The task begins with getting clear about the right principles in the first place. University leaders should be capable of articulating and defending the idea that the point of a university is to be a site of sharp-edged disagreements, free inquiry, and unorthodox thinking. If they want to resist the impression that elite universities have become "hedge funds with universities attached," then they need to be willing to celebrate and defend universities as places where ideas are taken seriously and freely discussed and debated. One attraction of the University of Chicago Statement on Principles of Free Expression is that it offers a pithy articulation of these core commitments. I helped lead the effort to have the faculty at Princeton University adopt that statement in order to show solidarity for what should be a core commitment of university faculty across the country. Adopting such a clear statement of principle reaffirms and clarifies the values of a scholarly community and sends a message to both students and administrators as to what the expectations and priorities of the faculty are. If the faculty of a university cannot manage to agree on such basic principles of intellectual freedom, then that makes a statement of its own and prospective students, faculty, and donors should take notice.
A second task for improving the environment for free speech on college campuses is one of socialization. The membership of the campus community is constantly changing. Universities have a particular need to integrate new members into a common community and socialize them into the commitments, values and expectations of that community. Universities cannot take for granted that new students just entering the university, new graduate students being trained to become future scholars, and new faculty joining the ranks of those guiding the university will all arrive on campus with an appreciation of the scholarly enterprise and intellectual experimentation that should characterize university life. In the 2018-2019 academic year, Princeton University used my book, Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech, as a common reading for the incoming freshman class and the starting point for various campus conversations about the nature of the university and importance of – and requirements of—freedom of inquiry, freedom of thought, and freedom of speech and the productive exchange of serious ideas. Princeton University's president is among a shockingly small number of university leaders who are willing to take a visible stand on behalf of free intellectual inquiry and ideological diversity. (Happily, my sometimes co-author and chancellor of the University of California at Irvine is among that number as well.) Not every university is willing to make that kind of commitment, and Princeton presumably will not be repeating that experience every few years, but every university could and should integrate more modest efforts to spur discussion and contemplation of free speech principles into routine activities on campus. New student orientation, for example, should expend at least as much time and energy familiarizing incoming students with the intellectual expectations of their new campus environment as it does with familiarizing them with safe partying and safe sex.
A third task for improving the environment for free speech on college campuses is one of administration. Universities should strive to create a better intellectual culture on college campus, one that is more tolerant of disagreement and ideological diversity and more focused on investigating serious ideas rather than provoking or performing outrage. But cultural change is hard and not easily within the control of university administrators or faculty. Universities can at least ensure that their own administrative policies and practices do a good job of preserving academic freedom and free speech on campus. They should be committed to securing the freedom of faculty to research and teach in accord with their disciplinary norms and standards and regardless of the political, moral or economic pressures to conform to local orthodoxy. They should be committed to protecting the freedom of faculty and students to express their social and political views without fear of reprisal or sanction for saying something controversial. They should take care that campus codes of conduct not be designed or deployed to suppress dissent. They should make public spaces freely and fairly available for expressive activities on campus. Such policies sometimes need to be tailored to local conditions and administered with an eye toward the educational mission of the university, but they should encourage a pluralistic and robust intellectual ecosystem on campus rather than smother it.
Too many university leaders would prefer to cross their fingers and hope that their institution does not find itself in the media spotlight because of some free speech controversy. They would be better off taking active steps to make such controversies less likely and to put the university as an institution on the right side of any controversy that does erupt. They should be able to show politicians and the public that they are doing what they can to foster a sound intellectual environment on their campuses.
This argument is developed at greater length in a forthcoming article, which can be read in draft here.