By now, most people who read this blog have seen the letter that the Dean of Students of the University of Chicago sent to incoming students this week:
The crucial paragraph of the letter was the third:
Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called “trigger warnings,” we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.
There’s a lot to say, and a lot that’s been said, about this passage—Jeet Heer wrote a short piece at the New Republic (using some of my tweets as a jumping-off point) arguing that it was an attack on academic freedom, for instance, while the former president of the U of C student government unleashed a devastating tweetstorm addressing the various ways in which the college’s administration had, during his time on campus, ducked its obligations to engage in open and constructive dialogue. (Link is to his Twitter feed. Scroll back.)
What I want to talk about today, though, is an essay by Jesse Singal of New York magazine, a writer whose views on campus issues I often share.
Singal is no huge fan of the letter’s framing, it’s important to note. Many of the criticisms I’ll be raising here are ones that he himself makes. But his core premise is that while the letter was perhaps over-aggressive and over-simplified, it was nonetheless a useful and justified intervention because it addressed a real problem on the contemporary campus—attacks on free speech.
Free speech is under threat on campus, he believes, and so, in taking a forthrightly pro-free-speech, pro-academic-freedom stand, the letter “could be a useful nudge to help get other, more timorous university administrators to stand up and do their jobs.”
Singal is right that there’s a real culture clash happening in American higher ed right now, but he’s wrong to portray it as a clash between supporters and opponents of free expression. To understand why, let’s examine the letter’s core positions one at a time.
“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings…'”
The college has already had to walk this one back a bit, because of course one may support trigger warnings and also be committed to academic freedom. Indeed, as a college professor who uses trigger warnings in my own classes, I’d interpret a statement like this from administrators at my college as a denigration of my pedagogical choices, and perhaps even a not-too-subtle suggestion that I revise my syllabi.
A university truly committed to academic freedom will allow its professors to decide for themselves whether to use trigger warnings, and will foster open and unfettered discussion as to whether they should so. It will also recognize that students who choose to agitate for the adoption of such warnings are themselves engaging in acts of free speech and deserving of the protections afforded by the principles of academic freedom.
The letter, sadly, acknowledges none of this.
“…we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial…”
Here too the letter reduces a complex, multifaceted question to a fatuous soundbite. Are there many people really arguing that a university should “cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial”? Not in my experience, and I pay quite a bit of attention to this stuff. No, the letter is here misrepresenting the position it argues against, and in so doing it papers over the most interesting questions it raises.
Here are some of those more interesting questions:
Should a university invite speakers who are bigots? If so, under what circumstances? Who should decide who is invited to speak on campus, and who should determine how student money is allocated to bring such speakers? Does a student club have an obligation to go forward with an invitation it has extended if it later comes to regret it? What are the proper limits of dissent and protest and disruption when an obnoxious speaker appears?
These are all questions on which people committed to free speech can vigorously disagree. (They’re all questions on which I’d happily argue one of several contradictory positions, for starters, if you’re buying the beer.) But there’s no hint of that vitality and complexity here.
“…and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”
Again the letter elides the most interesting, and most important, issues at hand. Should a campus Atheist Club be required to accept a fundamentalist Christian as a vocal participant in its meetings, and vice versa? Must a Women’s Center open its discussion group for sexual assault survivors to men? Are all spaces on campus sites of perpetual intellectual combat, open to all comers, or might students reasonably choose to affiliate only with like-minded friends and allies on occasion? The letter presupposes one answer to each of those questions, and to any other that could be asked from similar premises. But there is a strong civil libertarian case to be made for the opposite stance on each.
In fact, on each of the topics mooted in the letter—trigger warnings, campus speakers, and safe spaces—it could be argued that the principles of free speech and academic freedom demand the opposite conclusion from the one the letter reaches. Both the professor guarding her freedom to use trigger warnings and her colleague who opposes them may be civil libertarians, as may the reviled speaker and the student protesting at their talk and the atheist who demands a voice and the Christian who asserts her right to converse with those she chooses.
Again: There is no single pro-free-speech position on on any of these questions.
And so while Singal is right that there are major divisions on the contemporary American campus around issues of freedom of speech and academic freedom, he fails to recognize that those divisions are so deep and so contentious in large part because each side in each of those the debates can legitimately lay claim to the mantle of free expression.
The positions that the letter takes are not more civil libertarian than the ones that I, for instance—a supporter of trigger warnings and agitation against obnoxious speakers and safe spaces—take. In fact they are, I’d argue, in each case a less civil libertarian position.
And that is why we will never, despite what the University of Chicago might hope, and despite what Singal suggests, resolve these disputes via appeals to first principles.
Now maybe I’m wrong. Maybe my views on one or more of these questions is unsustainable from a civil libertarian perspective. But if so, we’ll figure that out not by fiat, but through robust, unfettered debate and by real-world experimentation. That debate is necessary, and it is not advanced be pre-emptive deployment of “we do not supports” and “we do not condones.” (Particularly when many members of the campus community emphatically do support and do condone precisely the positions that are repudiated by the dean’s letter.)
I stand with Singal in his advocacy for freedom of expression on campus, and I share some (though not all) of his concerns about contemporary campus climate. But the authors of the University of Chicago letter are not my allies in that fight, and I suspect that they’re mostly not Singal’s, either.