Weaponizing Free Speech


At Yale, at Missouri, at Wesleyan, and elsewhere, we’re witnessing a struggle between students who feel “unsafe,” physically and psychologically, and other social forces – at different times, faculty and administration, outside groups, or powerful alumni – who wish to protect what is described as “the exchange of ideas.” At best, popular shorthand characterizes this struggle as a matter of “free speech” versus “safe spaces,” as if one had to choose between the two. At worst, the students are characterized as thin-skinned and “intolerant.”

Students can – and do – speak for themselves. Writing as a faculty member, though, I find that many of the campus advocates of free speech don’t seem to want to preserve the best of it – or to protect the right of the individual in the face of authoritarian state sanction. Instead, they want to protect the right of the individual to say something that civil society deems politically incorrect, no matter how hurtful, because, when it comes down to it, they appear to value free speech more than they do anything else.

As Jelani Cobb puts it, “The freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the relatively disempowered.” As importantly, civil society has already designated certain things to be, well, profoundly uncivil. Things like blackface, for example. Or scientific racism. Or swastikas. And, really, no one should actually want to protect that sort of thing, let alone reproduce it. When we, as faculty, offer up blackface – or any of its logical analogies – as free speech itself, or when those are the things we’re debating, we’re well outside of what any rational person would argue. We’re weaponizing free speech.

It is telling, to me, that all of the present drama about free speech on college campuses isn’t about something comparatively innocent – like a debate over the relative value of William Faulkner and Toni Morrison – but instead over the right to say and do something vile and reprehensible. It is just as revealing that current defenders of free speech believe students to be overly sensitive, which gives their jeremiads against “safe space” a narrow-minded, social Darwinist texture, and transforms noxious ideas on campus into a form of tough-love.

We have a job to do. No one working within the modern university actually believes that every idea is of equal weight and equal value. Bringing two radically dissimilar ideas, one serious and the other obscene, into conversation “just because” only cheapens one and elevates the other. This notion that all ideas are worth the same is, as so many have noted, an utterly bankrupt false equivalency. We’re supposed to be a thinking and discerning institution, to review certain ideas and hypotheses, and establish certain intelligent benchmarks for any subsequent conversation. We’re supposed to set aside discussion of anything that seems farcical, ridiculous, or just plain mean. Just as editorial control precedes publishing, so should discernment precede speech, especially on a college campus – where we are supposed to be in the business of practicing and teaching both. Our chief function amidst the brick buildings and green lawns of higher education is to not merely to shed light on a complex landscape, but also to show the way through it.

The world outside will be what it is, but a college campus is not a public square. We ask students to sign (or at least acknowledge) an honor code at most colleges and universities. Here, where I teach, that code valorizes debate and inquiry, but it also highlights words like “integrity” and concepts like “mutual respect, tolerance, and understanding.” It emphasizes the “social community” of the campus.  By asking our students to agree to this, we make them promise a degree of intellectual and emotional generosity not generally found outside of the confines of the university. We imagine – and idealize – that everyone will work together to encourage a positive, constructive learning environment. Look around. Listen. When we hear some students confess that they feel unsafe, when they cry in our offices, when tell us that they feel silenced, they are telling us that we are collectively not living up to this social contract. They are asking for help. This isn’t about rights; it is about righteousness.

We have a moral and ethical obligation to care more about our students than we do about some abstract and unrealistically unabridged ideal of free speech, especially when the speech itself is so obviously a provocation, a stirring of the pot for no good reason. We’re supposed to make it possible for everyone to bring their passion – and, sometimes, their pain – into the classroom, but that doesn’t mean that everyone gets to say whatever they want, because we’ve agreed – from the moment we enter the campus – to be mindful of each other. We’re not supposed to make things worse or to add to the pain.