The real issue in the campus speech debate: The university is under assault
By Nicholas B. Dirks, August 9, 2017
There is no doubt that public concern about the vitality of free speech and political debate on American college campuses has legitimate causes. However, the current round of attacks – from the extreme right and left — is a pretext. It is part of a broader assault on the idea of the university itself: on its social functions, on the fundamental importance of advanced knowledge and enlightened debate, on the critical role of science and expertise in public policy and on the significance of intellectuals and serious thought leaders more generally.
It came as a nasty surprise when headlines this past winter and spring proclaimed that free speech at the University of California at Berkeley was dead. The initial image was indelible: an out-of-control bonfire on the central plaza, protesters using black bloc tactics storming the student union, a campus police force overwhelmed by unprecedented violence – which declared under duress that it could no longer control the event and had to cancel the appearance of the self-proclaimed troll and provocateur, Milo Yiannopoulos. The next morning we woke up to a tweet from the president, threatening us with the loss of federal funds over our apparent inability to protect free speech.
The headline was repeated later in the spring when Berkeley was unable to schedule Ann Coulter on the only day she decided to visit the campus (contrary to many press reports, we never “cancelled” her visit). And it was repeated recently when the Berkeley College Republicans complained that their invitation of Ben Shapiro was being blocked, when in fact the administration was actively working with the student group to identify appropriate accommodations in an effort to ensure that the event could go forward without disruption.
The headlines took hold not just because of Berkeley’s historical – and now iconic — relationship to free speech, but because they played into the narrative that college campuses in recent years have morphed into cocoons of political correctness that, in their effort to provide safe environments in which students can live and learn, have shifted from policing protesters to policing speech. This narrative has been so strong in certain quarters that conservative support for universities appears to be at an all-time low.
It is true that there were many students, and a significant group of faculty, who held that Yiannapoulos in particular pushed the envelope beyond what the university should tolerate. Yiannapoulos had been known invidiously to identify individual students, as in the case of a trans student he publicly mocked at an event at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee a few months earlier. And protests around Yiannapoulos’s appearances in Seattle and Davis had turned violent. A group of more than 100 faculty petitioned the administration to cancel the event, citing both public safety concerns as well as the rumors that Yiannapoulos was planning to name and attack individual students.
At Berkeley, as at other college campuses across the country, ensuring that students from minority backgrounds feel welcomed and supported, while also insisting on the unfettered exploration of diverse ideas, raises complicated issues even without the eruption of violent protest. Indeed, free speech controversies are embedded in what might seem to be fundamental contradictions, most notably between widely held campus commitments to diversity, inclusion, and social mobility on the one hand, and the constitutional right to free speech on the other.
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