The Volokh Conspiracy

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Campus Free Speech

University Presidents and Campus Speech Controversies

University presidents have a responsibility to stand up for academic freedom


It is now a familiar pattern. A professor says something controversial, most likely in public on social media. Someone notices and tries to attract attention by attacking the professor—perhaps in good faith disagreement, perhaps not. Petitions are started. Social media posts start trending. Calls are made to university officials demanding that something be done and asking plaintively that won't someone think of the children. The professor in question is likely to receive a spate of hate mail, both electronic and the old fashioned kind. Maybe things get serious and someone important like a donor, trustee, or politician declares that the professor should be terminated for the safety of the campus.

University presidents have a responsibility in such a situation. It should go without saying, but unfortunately it does not, that they have a responsibility to actually live up to their constitutional and contractual responsibilities and refrain from sanctioning the faculty member for saying something that someone finds controversial. They should insist that harassment and threats directed against members of the faculty will not be tolerated. Professors should at least be confident that when the mobs arrive, pitchforks in hand, that university leaders will not flinch and give in to the demands of the mob.

University presidents have a greater responsibility than just that, however, and they even more often fail to meet that greater responsibility. They have a responsibility to push back against the mob. They have a responsibility to clearly defend the core mission of the university, which is to make space for members of the campus community to explore ideas and, yes, say controversial things. Rather than standing up for freedom of thought and speech, university presidents are often tempted to avoid and deflect. They prefer to keep silent and hope the controversy goes away. They prefer to join the mob and issue their own denunciations of the thoughtcrime and assure everyone that they themselves would never express unconventional thoughts.

University presidents have a responsibility to educate the campus community and the broader public about what it is that universities do and what it means to value freedom of thought and to tolerate dissent. When controversies over faculty speech arise, university presidents should take the opportunity to reassure the campus that academic values will be respected and to propagate a better understanding of what members of the broader public should expect from a university.

As I pointed out in a recent article on "Free Speech and the Diverse University," university presidents should plan ahead and know what they will say when the time comes and emotions run high.

The message university leaders should send when controversy erupts is more basic. The university is the home of many students and scholars who speak and act as individuals and who hold myriad and conflicting beliefs, opinions and ideas. The university is committed only to the inviolability of freedom of thought and freedom of inquiry. It does not endorse the ideas and opinions of any individual on campus, nor does any individual on campus represent the university. Members of the faculty think for themselves and can formulate and defend their own ideas. They recognize that their ideas can be scrutinized and criticized, sometimes embraced by others and sometimes rejected. The university holds members of the faculty responsible to their disciplinary norms when they teach and research within their area of expertise, but the university does not sanction members of the campus community for expressing unpopular or controversial ideas.