The Volokh Conspiracy

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Donald Trump

Securing Free Speech on Campus, Part I

If universities do not take steps to address their campus free speech problems, politicians will do it for them


President Donald Trump's proposed executive order on free speech in universities has once again turned a spotlight on the worries over campus free speech in the United States. There is substantial debate over just how extensive of a free speech problem college campuses actually have. Individual incidents of bad behavior on campus get extraordinary attention in the current political and media environment. There is little question that incidents such as the one Trump highlighted – a conservative activist getting punched in the face on the University of California at Berkeley campus – or myriad others – such as Charles Murray getting shouted down at Middlebury College or Heather MacDonald having her audience blocked from attending her speech at Claremont McKenna College – should be deeply disturbing and should be understood to be contrary to the values and mission of an American university. Unfortunately, there are students, faculty and administrators at many colleges who would fully endorse just such disruptive behavior.

What is much less clear is how widespread such incidents really are and whether they are becoming more common. In the age of social media and pocket cameras, nearly every incident has the potential to be recorded for posterity and broadcast far and wide, but even a decade ago such incidents could more easily fly under the radar. At the same time, the many more occasions on which Charles Murray and Heather MacDonald speak to a college audience without incident are easily overlooked. There is even some reason to hope that the campus speech situation is in fact improving compared to a couple of years ago, in part due to the work of organizations like FIRE and in part because the recent high-profile incidents were something of a wake-up call to many campus leaders who did not want their institution to become the next Middlebury or Evergreen State.

But it would be foolhardy to think that the free speech problems on college campuses are of no importance or will simply go away on their own. There is a great deal that can and should be done on college campuses to improve the free speech climate. As Trump's proposed executive order indicates, if universities will not take action themselves, they can expect that donors, trustees, and politicians will take action for them. Outside intervention, however, is likely to be crude, ineffective and overly politicized. One of the attractive features of American higher education is its diversity, and a one-size-fits-all solution cuts against the pluralism that we should want to foster. We should not welcome the idea of federal bureaucrats monitoring every college and university's student disciplinary practices or external speaker policies. We can hardly take for granted the good faith or the competence of the activists and politicians who are eager to use "free speech" as the cudgel with which to attack universities. Universities will be better positioned to withstand outside pressures if they get their own house in order. Moreover, universities should want to improve their own free speech situation because the quality of the intellectual climate on campus is intimately connected to the very reasons why universities exist in the first place.

Tomorrow I'll post some proposals for proactive steps that universities could take to improve the free speech situation on their campuses. A preview of the longer argument can be found here.